Special opportunity on special teams for Atlanta Falcons' Eric Weems
November 10, 11:44 PM Atlanta Falcons Examiner Daniel Cox
Eric Weems is not a very large man.
He sometimes stands on the chair in front of his locker to reach items on the top shelf.
The 5'9" Atlanta Falcons return man and wide receiver had a tall order in training camp earlier this season when he found himself thrust into a role other than that of the fifth receiver on the team for which he'd assumed he'd battle to earn.
Second-year wide receiver and reigning electrifying punt returner Harry Douglas went down with a torn ACL in the fifth day of practice and some of the dynamics of the 2009 Atlanta Falcons began to change. Not only was Douglas the punt returner, but there was some thought that with an increase in usage as a running back, Jerious Norwood's role of kick returner would be filled by Douglas as well.
With Douglas' injury, the window opened for a host of players the average NFL fan, even the average Falcons fan, had never heard of. Guys like Bergeron, Williams, Kelly, Mougey, and Godfrey. There was also Weems, who'd been with the team since 2007 and who saw action in six games to close the 2008 season.
As Atlanta's Head Coach Mike Smith said on the day after Douglas' injury, "One man's misfortune is another guy's opportunity."
Weems impressed the coaching staff with his effort in training camp and the preseason games, in both the return game and as a receiver. He found himself on the receiving end of a game-winning Chris Redman touchdown pass in the third week of the preseason against San Diego.
The coaches had identified him as their man--the potential return man and the fifth receiver in camp, but he still had to earn the job in the wake of Douglas' injury.
"It was a big loss, when Harry went down," says Weems. "We just knew that someone had to step up on special teams and take his role. They pointed me out to be that guy. So I had to be the guy that they wanted to take that role. I know I'm giving everything I've got not to let them down."
So far, eight games into the '09 campaign, he's holding up his end of the bargain, and then some.
With the unstable health of Norwood this season, Weems assumed the role of returning both punts and kicks in addition to receiver to receiver. Oh, he is also in on the kick and punt coverage teams as well and it's not all the uncommon for him to record a tackle or two in that discipline.
He's yet another jack-of-all-trades for a Smith-led Falcons team that seems to feature a few of them.
For Weems, special teams is all about one play and giving everything you've got on that single play. It's a mix of chaos and confusion that ultimately determines where an offense can begin and how difficult or easy it can be to score. It's also a unit that is often comprised of backups and guys willing to do whatever they can to impress the coaches and stay with the team. It's a mix of rookies and hangers-on.
"We know that special teams is only one play," Weems says. "We've got to give 100% effort for that one play. Whether it's kickoff return, punt, punt return, or kickoff--we only get one play so we've got to go out there and give our best effort. We have four more plays of rest to get our breath, so why not go hard for one play?"
One play with max effort is what allowed Weems to lead the team with two special teams tackles in Week 1's win over Miami. It's what allowed him to return a kick 62 yards in Week 6 to set up the game-winning score against the Chicago Bears. It's what's earned him the eighth-best kick return average (of players with 18 or more returns) of 27.2 yards in the NFL--fourth-best in the NFC.
It doesn't go unrecognized. His teammates and coaches point to the former Bethune-Cookman star as a vital part of the team. In his third year in the league, it's satisfying to Weems to know he's playing a major part in the success of the team.
"It feels great," he says with a smile. "Special teams is the third phase of the game. Special teams can make or break a game. It feels good to go out there and have an impact. Those guys up front, they give me creases and lanes to run through. I've just got to do my best to find those creases."
The third phase of the game, as he and many others call it, is still the most overlooked. It could also be considered the most violent aspect of a truly violent game.
It's equal parts kill the man with the football ("That's the main objective: get the guy with the ball," he says. "Get him on the ground"), hit anything that moves, and every pre-Civil War battle scene throughout history.
Even the positions indicate violence.
Gunners are kamikaze-styled players whose sole goal is to run as fast as they can down the sideline to tackle the return man, who is often a moving target.
The wedge is a formation of players running up the field together in an effort to protect the return man and create those creases that Weems says he's looking for. This season the NFL made that role (and that of the entire return game) more difficult when it reduced the number of allowed wedge blockers to two.
Just as every point has its counterpoint, every wedge has its buster: the wedge buster, a player whose primary focus is to cause disruptions on the field.
All this happens right in front of Weems as he's fielding a kick. What's going on inside his head you wonder?
"I'm very nervous," the returner says. "The first thing you think about is securing the ball because if you get a turnover on special teams that could be great field position for the other team or you could possibly give up a score."
The true test of a return man is not only his ability to fight that fear, but conquer it and overcome the opposing 10 men (11 if you include the kicker) and find the end zone for a score. That hasn't happened for the 24-year-old Weems, but he feels it coming.
"It's coming in due time," he says. "I'm not in a rush. The guys will give me creases so it's on me to get it done. I'm just going to take my time and keep hitting it how I've been hitting. Maybe one game I'll break the long one."
But he has found the end zone this season.
In Week 7's loss to the Dallas Cowboys, he was the recipient of a Matt Ryan fourth-quarter touchdown pass. One of two receptions he had in the game, the touchdown was the first of his professional career. The loss dampened the occasion, but the ball didn't leave his hands as he made his way to the sideline. That ball went to his mother he says.
Even with the touchdown reception, he realizes special teams is where his biggest impact on the team will come. Many of the passes on the Falcons will go to the Roddy Whites, Michael Jenkinses, and Tony Gonzalezes of the team. He's fine with that. He actually prefers his roles on special teams.
"Right now I like returning the ball (the most)," Weems says. "Covering kicks--it's fun to me."
Like he said: returning the ball, covering kicks, whatever's asked of him, he'll do it with the intensity of a player that knows he must sell out on the one play he's asked to play.
Look no further than last Sunday's 31-17 win over the Washington Redskins to understand his philosophy.
In his first return of the second half, Weems was leveled by Redskins special teamer Lorenzo Alexander
"Oh man, I've never been hit like that before," he says of the tackle. "He caught me. Hit me right in my temple."
But if you watched closely, despite the head-rattling hit, Weems was up as quickly as his striker and that tells you everything you need to know.
"Take a blow like that, you can't let them know you're down," the Falcons new return man says. "You let them know you're down, they think they got you. So I just pop right back up and let them know I'm still here and I'm going to keep returning these kicks."