Dating from the days of Billy “White Shoes” Johnson to Deion “Prime Time” Sanders to Allen Rossum and most recently, Devin Hester, Falcon fans have been enthralled with the team’s return game.
Johnson had the moves and the great end-zone dance. Sanders simply was electrifying. Rossum was dynamic and and set records in the playoffs.
Hester, in his brief stay at the end of his career, made history with a record-breaking touchdown return.
Eric Weems was a steady performer and went to the Pro Bowl as a special-teams player. But the fans, and apparently the front office, seemed to sour on his consistency and fair catches last season.
Weems, who was pound-for-pound one of the tougher players on the roster and made it in the NFL as an undrafted player from Bethune-Cookman, did not re-sign after last season. The Falcons signed Andre Roberts in free agency to replace Weems, and they hope he’ll pump some spice back into the return game.
“We are excited,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said when asked about Roberts.
Roberts, 29, inked a one-year, $1.8 million deal. He averaged 22.2 yards on kickoff returns and 11.7 on punt returns with two touchdowns last season.
“Andre is an experienced returner,” special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said. “He’s got the ability to go score. He gives you a chance for an explosive play.”
Roberts, who played at The Citadel, was drafted in the third round (88th overall) of the 2010 draft. He’s played with Arizona (2010-13), Washington (2014-15) and Detroit (2016).
In the exhibition opener against Miami, Roberts nearly broke Twitter as Falcons fans got excited after a 39-yard punt return. He’s also returned two kickoffs, including a 26-yarder.
“For a punt, you always want to get vertical and downhill,” said Roberts while discussing his approach to the return game. “Obviously, you want to try to make somebody miss first. You want to get downhill fast because that the biggest chance you are going to have to help your team out and get some yards. You know the punter wants to switch the field on us.”
Roberts has a plan for his kickoff returns, too.
“On kickoff returns, you have to get vertical with speed,” Roberts said. “It has got to be one cut. Unlike on punt returns, you can make a couple people miss and then get vertical. On kickoff returns, it has to be a one cut and go. Usually, the ones that break, you’re just going downhill fast.”
Crossing the goal line after a long return is exhilarating for Roberts.
“It feels great regardless of what point in time it is in the game,” he said. “To be able to help your team out with a score. It’s awesome.”
Roberts loves it when he goes in untouched.
“I had one versus the Jaguars last year, and I was untouched,” Roberts said. “That’s just a credit to our punt-return team. We have a lot good guys here working hard, and hopefully we can get that done as well.”
The Falcons hope that Roberts gets some opportunities over the final two exhibition games.
“In the (exhibition) season we really want to see the guys return when they can,” Quinn said. “ Sometimes on the kickoff return it has to be really deep for us not to want to come out. That one, when you are trying to evaluate, you want to take your shot and go.”
Roberts has also started 40 games in the NFL at wide receiver. He’s caught 243 passes of 456 times he was the target (53.2 percent).
“He’s also been a good addition from a receiving standpoint,” Quinn said. “That part has come alive as well for us, the toughness, good hands, going in to block. ... In our system that’s important, too.”
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