Falcons’ return man also a key tackler

Eric Weems of the Falcons returns a kick against the Buccaneers on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton /ccompton@ajc.com

Eric Weems of the Falcons returns a kick against the Buccaneers on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton /ccompton@ajc.com

With a blocked extra-point attempt on the Chiefs’ first possession Sunday and a 59-yard field goal by kicker Matt Bryant, the Falcons’ special teams affected the scoreboard positively in the first half of the game, but a missed tackle by returner Eric Weems on a fake punt handed the Chiefs seven critical points in the second half.

“I should have made that tackle,” Weems said. “I could have made it. I saw when it happened, so when (Chiefs’ wide receiver Albert Wilson ran the ball), the line just kind of opened up and he came out, so I just tried to meet him and just try to shoot my shot and get him on one leg and someone else could come. I just feel like if that happens nine more times, I’ll make the play nine more times.”

On fourth-and-1 on the Chiefs’ 45-yard line, Wilson lined up in front of Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt and ran the ball through the line of scrimmage and by Weems, the only Falcon inside Falcons territory. Wilson slipped through Weems’ grasp on the Falcons’ 29 and scored on a 55-yard touchdown run that gave the Chiefs a 27-16 lead.

Although Weems missed an important tackle in Sunday’s 29-28 Falcons loss, the 10-year veteran said he learned from his costly mistake, and his team hasn’t lost faith in one of their top tacklers on special teams.

“When you look at a guys like Weems, who’s beating double teams to make tackles and as a returner, he finishes off every run, fights for extra yards and takes care of the ball,” Falcons special-teams coach Keith Armstrong said. “(He) makes good decisions and helps us out on the sideline with guys. He’s a motivational leader. He takes the position and the job seriously. He knows this is what keeps him in the league.

“This is his job. This is his profession and he’s a true professional, which is probably the highest compliment that you could give a guy.”

Armstrong’s praise notwithstanding, Weems wasn’t expected to play pro football.

In three seasons at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., Weems racked up 3,164 all-purpose yards and 33 total touchdowns, but wasn’t drafted in 2007 after his senior season. Weems, a wide receiver and A-back, might not have signed with any team if not for a decision by his college coach, Alvin B. Wyatt Sr., who asked Weems to fill in as kick and punt returner during his senior season.

Weems signed with the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in May 2007 under new coach Bobby Petrino. Weems played for two seasons with the Chicago Bears from 2012-13, but returned to Atlanta in May 2014 under coach Mike Smith.

“With punt returns, it was dangerous, but I love having the ball in my hands, so I took on the challenge — I embraced it,” Weems said.

This season, Weems has returned 18 punts for 181 yards, with a long of 73 yards, and 17 kicks of 391 yards. Weems had one return against the Chiefs, a 17-yard return of the opening kickoff.

As the Falcons face the Los Angeles Rams on the road Sunday, Weems might have his shot to redeem himself if Rams coach Jeff Fisher incorporates any fake plays.

“This team (the Rams) does an excellent job in terms of fakes, and that could be on punts, that could be on field goals,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “Coach Fisher’s team for years, through Tennessee, through St. Louis to now, the tradition continues out west. That part of our game takes time, and we’ll give it our full attention as well.”

Fisher’s most recent trickery came against the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 9, when Fisher called for a fake punt on the Rams’ 23-yard line. The play failed, and the Rams turned the ball over on downs.

Weems and the Falcons’ special teams will face Rams punter Johnny Hekker, who has completed 6 of 10 passes for 99 yards and one touchdown on fake plays in his career. Hekker, a fifth-year punter out of Oregon State who averages six punts per game, has placed the ball inside the 20-yard line on 55.6 percent of his punts.

“He can place the ball really well,” Weems said. “I got to say he has a strong leg and he can throw the ball as well, so he’s got a lot of lanes to him, but the main thing about him is he’s a bomber. You can’t play him too short, or he’ll kick it over your head.”