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FLOWERY BRANCH — Eric Weems doesn’t have much time to make an impression. A few seconds here, a play or two there.
So, he must think fast, be decisive and put out of his mind that 11 guys are bearing down on him with bad intentions. When it all works out, Weems, only 5-foot-9, might just be the most important player on the field for the Atlanta Falcons.
The little-known player out of little Bethune-Cookman College has come up with huge kickoff returns each of the last two weeks to help the Falcons (10-2) extend their winning streak to six in a row. They have the best record in the NFC heading to the final month of the season.
Atlanta plays at Carolina (1-11) on Sunday.
“We know it’s an important phase of the game,” Weems said. “It doesn’t get looked at as much as the offense and defense. But we feel like any special teams play can make or break a game.”
This past Sunday, with the Falcons having just surrendered a touchdown that gave Tampa Bay a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter, Weems took the ensuing kickoff, cut to his right, broke at least three tackles and somehow tip-tiptoed along the sideline before bursting free on a 102-yard return for a touchdown that sparked Atlanta to a 28-24 victory.
The week before, Green Bay scored a tying touchdown with less than a minute to go and everyone settled in for overtime. Not so fast. Weems took the kickoff, shot through a seam and might have gone all the way if a Packers player had not yanked him down by the facemask. The personal foul moved the Falcons across midfield, and they quickly struck for the winning field goal.
Atlanta coach Mike Smith knows that it takes someone special to handle the role of kickoff and punt returner.
“You have to be fearless,” Smith said. “You have to have good vision and no fear. Guys are running down the field, sprinting full speed at you. You’ve got to have no fear of taking the big hit, because you are going to take some big hits in the kicking and return game. That has to be one of your toughest players.”
Weems has been one of the league’s most effective return specialists. Among those with at least 10 kickoff returns, he ranks third in the league with a 28.1-yard average. He also brings back punts for the Falcons, ranking among the top 10 with a 13.2-yard average.
Not bad for someone who played at a Football Championship Subdivision school and wasn’t even drafted after his college career.
“It’s all hard work and determination,” Weems said. “The guys at the smaller schools are hungry just like the other guys. You see what type of team we have here. Everyone has to play a role in order for us to get where we’re going.”
Indeed, the Falcons have two key players who weren’t drafted after playing at schools below the NCAA’s elite division. Starting cornerback Brent Grimes, from Division II Shippensburg State, had a game-clinching interception against the Buccaneers.
“It really says a lot about the ability of the scouting staff to identify players, regardless of where they played ball collegiately,” Smith said. “There are good players all over this country.”
Weems is a receiver who returned punts at Bethune-Cookman, but he didn’t add kickoffs to his repertoire until he got to Atlanta.
While the two may look the same, they require distinctly different skills. Punts are higher and shorter, leaving little time to decide whether to even attempt a return, much less which way to go. On kickoffs, there’s a few seconds to get up a full head of steam and read the blocks before running up against the first wave of would-be tacklers.
Still, Weems uses many of the same basic tactics whether he’s handling a kickoff or a punt. In most cases, it’s full speed ahead — not sideways.
“He’s not going to dance,” Smith said. “That’s his biggest trait: he’s a north and south runner. I tell guys all the time to get north and south as quickly as possible. Occasionally you might have an opportunity to bounce outside. But the speed in this league is so close. The guys covering as just as fast as the guys returning.”
Speaking of covering, Weems does that too. He’s a regular on the kickoff coverage team and has been a gunner on punts, lining up on the outside and racing downfield as quickly as possible so he arrives at the returner about the time the ball does.
Weems did get a break this past Sunday after his long return against the Buccaneers.
“I was very exhausted,” he said. “I told Keith (Armstrong, the special teams coach) to get someone else to cover for me. I was supposed to cover the kickoff, but I couldn’t do it.”
That’s OK. The Falcons will gladly give Weems a break after he runs the length of the field.