Countdown to camp: A look at the special teams

Birdland – With the opening of the Falcons‘ training camp just days away, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will take a look at some key positions every day through Thursday. Today: the special team units.

The 10-day “Countdown to Camp” series started out with the defensive line and followed by the linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties and offensive linemen.

The players report for training camp next Wednesday and take the field for the first practice at 10:40 a.m. the following day. 

Here’s a look at the cornerbacks:

THE REALLY BIG QUESTION: Who will replace Eric Weems as the kickoff and punt returner?

Who will replace Eric Weems as the punt returner and kickoff returner?

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Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong must find a replacement for the versatile Eric Weems, the former Pro Bowler player who signed with Chicago during free agency.

Weems, who pound-for-pound was probably the toughest player on the team, will be missed. He returned punts, kickoffs and was one of the top special-teams tacklers.

Wide receiver Harry Douglas was a dangerous punt returner as a rookie and took one back for a touchdown back in 2008.

Last season, cornerback Dominique Franks flashed some spectacular punt return skills during the exhibition season.

Running back Antone Smith is tough and fast enough to handle the kickoff return chores although he will likely have to beat out free-agent signee James Rodgers, the older brother of running back Jacquizz Rodgers.

“He catches the ball clean and has some experience,” Armstrong said of James Rodgers.

Kicker Matt Bryant continued to be dependable as he made 27 of 29 field goal attempts (93.1 percent) last season.

Armstrong attributed punter Matt Bosher’s early struggles last season to the lockout. Bosher rebounded nicely as the season went along.

He punted 70 times and pinned the opposition inside the 20-yard line 27 times, the fourth-highest in a single-season in team history. He averaged 42.7 yards per punt and the punt coverage unit gave up just 4.8 yards per punt return.

Linebacker Akeem Dent (19), Weems (12), safety Shann Schillinger (11), defensive end Kroy Biermann (nine), Bosher (eight) and cornerback Christopher Owens (8) were the top special-teams tacklers last season.

FIVE GOALS FOR THE SPECIAL TEAMS UNITS IN 2012

1. Find the most stable and dangerous return men.

2. Win the field-position battle.

3. Block some kicks and punts.

4. Create more turnovers.

5. Set the tone with big hits.

Here’s a look at the key special-teams players:

Matt Bryant, kicker: He turned 37, but has not shown any signs of slowing down. He made 45 of 45 of his PATs last season.

Matt Bosher, punter  and holder: Struggled early, but ended up making several all-rookie teams.

Erik Folk, kicker: He made a 53-yarder during his college career at Washington and is the younger brother of New York Jets kicker Nick Folk.

Dawson Zimmerman, punter: The former Brookwood High product from Lawrenceville averaged 40.8 yards on 127 career punts. He placed 40 punts inside the 20.

James Rodgers: He averaged 24.7 yards on kickoff returns and 13.7 yards on punt returns during his stellar career at Oregon State.

Dominique Franks: He had five punt returns for 83 yards (16.6 average) and a long of 44 yards last exhibition season.

Harry Douglas: Returned 19 punts for 226 yards and one touchdown in 2008. He also had four kickoff returns for 46 yards.

Joe Zelenka, long snapper: He’s back for his 14th season in the league. He hasn’t had a fumbled snap since 2001.

Josh Harris, long snapper:  The Carrollton High product was considered the best long snapper in the draft. He consistently gets his snaps back in .70 seconds or less.

Kerry Meier, holder: The former quarterback backed up Bosher as the holder last season.

Training camp Dates, Practice Times (public availability)

Thursday, July 26 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)

Friday, July 27 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)

Saturday, July 28 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05p.m. (open to the public)

Sunday, July 29 Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Monday, July 30 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Tuesday, July 31 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Wednesday, August 1 Players’ Day Off

Thursday, August 2 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Friday, August 3 Practice 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

KIA Motors “Friday Night Lights” at Peachtree Ridge High School

6:45 – 9:10 p.m. (open to the public)

Saturday, August 4 Players’ Day Off

Sunday, August 5 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)

Monday, August 6 Walkthrough 11:10 – 11:55 a.m. (closed to the public)

Combined Practice w/ Tennessee Titans

Coahulla Creek High School – Dalton, GA — 4:30 – 7:15 p.m. (open to the public)

Tuesday, August 7 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Wednesday, August 8 Pregame Walkthrough – No Media Availability

Thursday, August 9 Falcons vs. Baltimore Ravens, Georgia Dome, 7:30 p.m.

Friday, August 10 Players’ Day Off

Saturday, August 11 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Sunday, August 12 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Monday, August 13 Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (closed to the public)

Tuesday, August 14 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (closed to the public)

Wednesday, August 15 Pregame Walkthrough – No Media Availability

Thursday, August 16 Falcons vs. Cincinnati Bengals, Georgia Dome, 8 p.m. – FOX (National Broadcast)

Friday, August 17 Players’ Day Off

Saturday, August 18 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (closed to the public)

Sunday, August 19 Walkthrough 10:15 – 11:45 a.m. (closed to the public)

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–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog

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20 comments Add your comment

SCFalcon

July 21st, 2012
5:14 am

Good morning all.

SCFalcon

July 21st, 2012
5:16 am

I don’t know that I would like to see Douglas returning punts. He is too valuble as a third reciever. Dled does the team see Douglas as injury prone?

Falcon James

July 21st, 2012
6:30 am

Bryant will definetly keep us in games this year. He is dependable in a pinch. I think we will see several players return kicks before we settle on one. I think that job is up in the air until preseason is over.

Rick Rise Up

July 21st, 2012
6:57 am

Sc falcon. Totally agree. We aren’t deep enough at reciever to have a starter returning kicks

D man

July 21st, 2012
8:09 am

Since the NFL moved kickoffs up 5 yards last year, we just need a returner that won’t fumble the ball. There won’t be many opportunities to run the kickoffs out of the end zone as we learned last year. On punt returns, whoever can hold onto the ball is all we really need. If he runs one back for a TD every once in a while great, but just don’t fumble the ball whoever gets the job. Our offense will move the ball down the field just fine on their own.

The Real Falcon

July 21st, 2012
8:23 am

Agree with SCFalcon, save Douglas for offense.

Esquire

July 21st, 2012
8:37 am

3. PASSED: Changing overtime so that the postseason rule will be used in the regular season as well, and no regular-season games will be ended on a field goal on the first possession of overtime.

4. PASSED: Adding a loss of down to the penalty for kicking a loose ball, as is the case in college football.

5. PASSED: Adopting the college rule for too many men on the field, which is a dead-ball foul if a team lines up on offense for more than three seconds, or if a team on defense lines up with too many men and the snap is imminent. In those cases, the officials will blow the play dead and assess a five-yard penalty. This change wouldn’t affect the rulings on players running off the field who don’t get off in time.

6. PASSED: Expanding the defenseless player rule to protect defensive players on crackback blocks, making it illegal to hit them in the head or neck area.

7. PASSED: Automatically reviewing turnovers via instant replay, just as scoring plays are automatically reviewed.

I thought I had heard about another rule change I half caught what someone was saying on sports radio. These are new for 2012.

SeenThisB4

July 21st, 2012
8:49 am

DLed: Why no discussion on touchbacks by the kickoff specialists? Not expecting that to be a significant stat? Guess not, not with these guys.

Rick

July 21st, 2012
9:11 am

Rodgers is going to fit very well in this position. I likr the idea of this rookie stepping in at this spot and given him a chance to shine!

JSS

July 21st, 2012
9:53 am

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeems will be missed on the coverage teams! Just one last time for posterity!

He took a lot of pressure off one side of the kick coverages… That cannot be discounted. I hope it does not come back to bite them like the early struggles of the punter did last season. A long term gain, but it was very costly in the short term… Walls benefitted greatly from Weems…

D. Orlando Ledbetter

July 21st, 2012
1:35 pm

Esquire – Cody Pearcy was cut to make room for Chris Hope.

D. Orlando Ledbetter

July 21st, 2012
1:36 pm

SCFalcon — I don’t think so. He just had the one knee injury.

Mikey

July 21st, 2012
7:23 pm

Weems did a good job for us but there is a 100% chance that someone will lead the team in Special Teams tackles in his absence. We’ve got some new blood in there and someone just might be incredible. Coverage schemes set certain players up for more tackle opportunities than others so I don’t read too much into tackle numbers. I personally think we will improve in punt returns with someone who has more confidence catching the ball. I saw lots of fair catches last year that could have been break aways or at least added yardage. Not sure whether those resulted from coach distrust or player fear. I personally think we will improve in punt returns with someone who has more confidence catching the ball. I saw lots of fair catches last year that could have been break aways or at least added yardage. We should have better receiver depth than Eric Weems provided too so this year wll probably be an upgrade overall but I still wish Weems well on his new team (except when we play them).

I’m not sure what Weems is going to do for the Bears with Devin Hester on the team. That is a night and day comparison when it comes to punt returning. I’m anxious to see what the Bears do with him. He will certainly strengthen their special teams tackling.

Surg

July 21st, 2012
9:13 pm

Rick lets not forget what happened to the 49ers in the NFC championship lol

explosive special teams

July 22nd, 2012
1:20 pm

Find the most Stable and Dangerous return men

Chub Rock

July 22nd, 2012
1:42 pm

Forgot about Antoine Smith.

tim

July 22nd, 2012
6:47 pm

Why all the strange times for starts and stops of practice?

10:40..11.25…6:05…5:50…..

spaceghostman

July 22nd, 2012
6:53 pm

Find a way…Please find a way to get Antoine Smith in the game! Dled can you at lease in one of your interviews find out why the Falcons coaches fail to see the speed and agility that he brings to the offense….take notes from last seasons preseason games.

D. Orlando Ledbetter

July 22nd, 2012
8:15 pm

spaceghostman – He has to continue playing well on special teams and hope that he gets a chance from scrimmage.

[...] The 10-day “Countdown to Camp” series started out with the defensive line and was followed by the linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties, offensive line and special-teams units. [...]