Dangerous Atlanta Falcons punt returner Eric Weems looms large for Green Bay Packers special teams

Jan. 12, 2011
The Insiders: Season 4, episode 19
The Insiders: Season 4, episode 19: The Insiders discuss James Starks, Aaron Rodgers and how to beat the Atlanta Falcons. The gang goes on a search to locate the lone Insiders fan.
Green Bay Packers' Brandon Chillar (54) injures his shoulder on a special teams tackle of Atlanta Falcons' Eric Weems during the second quarter of the game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga., on Nov. 28, 2010. / File/Press-Gazette

The Green Bay Packers faced dangerous return men Devin Hester and DeSean Jackson the past two weeks and survived.

Now they have another major challenge on their hands against Atlanta Falcons return man Eric Weems, who like Hester and Jackson made the Pro Bowl this season.

“It comes in our favor that we’ve played Devin Hester and DeSean Jackson in consecutive weeks before going against this guy,” Packers fullback and special teams ace John Kuhn said. “He’s very good as well. We’re going to have our hands full.”

The Packers found out how much Weems can impact a game in November when he set the Falcons up for a game-winning drive with 1:06 remaining in a tie game. The kickoff coverage team failed to penetrate the backside and a safety was out of position when Weems sprinted 40 yards before being yanked down by the facemask. Matt Wilhelm was called for the penalty and the Falcons started their drive on the Green Bay 49-yard line. Matt Bryant kicked a 47-yard field goal for a 20-17 win six plays later.

“It was tough giving up that big play,” tight end Tom Crabtree said. “It’s definitely not how we planned on it to go. At the same time, that stuff is going to happen in a game and you’ve got to find a way to overcome it, and if not, learn from it.

“We’ve learned from it.”

That play was reviewed in meetings after the game and again this week.

As the Packers have gotten healthier, their special teams units have become more consistent with personnel. Special teams coach Shawn Slocum was playing mix and match on a weekly basis during the middle of the season when the injury report read like an iPod playlist.

The Chicago Bears’ Hester was a nonfactor in the season finale against the Packers after returning a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in their first meeting this season. The Philadelphia Eagles’ Jackson fielded just one punt against the Packers in their wild-card playoff game on Sunday and returned it 14 yards.

Weems finished the regular season ranked No. 3 in the NFC with an average of 27.5 yards per kickoff return. He had a 102-yard kickoff return for touchdown against the Buccaneers in Week 13 and a 55-yard score on a punt return against the Panthers in the season finale.

Weems is the only player in Falcons franchise history to return a kickoff and punt for a touchdown in the same season.

“Eric is a tough football player that breaks some tackles,” Slocum said. “That touchdown run against Tampa Bay, he broke several tackles.

“He had to be worn out after that play because I don’t know how many yards he ran in that 100 yards, but it was a long way and he broke a lot of tackles.”

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Jarrett Bush, the playoffs special teams captain, said, “A little mighty mouse back there. That’s how I describe him. He has that little man’s syndrome. Definitely a scrapper.”

The Packers will use a similar strategy against Weems as they did with Hester and Jackson. They will try to limit opportunities by punting toward the sideline and emphasizing hang time so the coverage team can get downfield.

Bush called Weems one of the top five return men in the NFL.

Punter Tim Masthay, who has been on a hot streak even after punting outdoors the past four weeks, should have an advantage inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday. He averaged 43.4 net yards the last time he was indoors in Detroit and 44.0 at Atlanta.

“It’ll be nice to not have to fight to stay loose on the sideline, that’s one of the biggest things,” Masthay said. “It’ll be nice to not be cold.”

Slocum said the Falcons’ special teams stand out the most for their kickoff coverage. Punter Michael Koenen handles the kickoffs and is adept at knocking them high and deep, limiting the chances for Packers return men.

The Packers can’t afford to have a special teams miscue this week like they did in the first game against the Falcons. Special teams gaffes can have a large impact in the playoffs.

“One mess-up can change the whole game, especially in a prime-time game, playoff game like this,” Bush said. “You have to make the tackles that you need to make. Just be consistent.

“We definitely have all the cylinders pumping right now in the special teams phases. We’ve just got to keep it rolling. Keep the confidence rolling. Keep the swagger going.”

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