The Packers faced two of the most dynamic return men in the league in Chicago’s Devin Hester and Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson over the last two weeks and prevented both from having a significant impact in the game.
Now Green Bay turns its attention to Weems, who ranked No. 3 in the NFL this season with a 27.5 average on kickoff returns, including a 102-yard touchdown against Tampa Bay in Week 13. He also posted a 12.8-yard average on 18 punt returns, a mark that would have ranked No. 4 in the NFL had he not fallen short of the required 20 attempts for the league rankings. Weems returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown in the season finale against Carolina to become the first player in team history to record both a kickoff return and a punt return for a touchdown in the same season.
“Very dynamic, just like the rest of them,” defensive back Jarrett Bush said. “Hester, Jackson, great returners, and you can put Weems up there with them.
“He’s a little more aggressive, a little scrappier, but he is a great returner. We’ve got to go in there and have the same game plan, get the tackles we need to make, contain him, stay in our field lanes and just stay disciplined.”
In the Week 12 meeting at Atlanta, the Packers kept the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Weems in check on his first two kickoff returns as they limited him to returns of 25 and 28 yards. But after Green Bay tied the game at 17 with less than a minute remaining, Weems took Mason Crosby’s kick from 4 yards deep in the end zone and found a seam out to the 36 for a 40-yard return, with an extra 15 yards tacked on because of a face-mask penalty on linebacker Matt Wilhelm.
Starting from the Green Bay 49, quarterback Matt Ryan completed four passes for 20 yards to set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning 47-yard field goal in the closing seconds.
Weems didn’t have any punt returns in the first meeting, with one of Tim Masthay’s punts downed and the other going out of bounds. Weems’ impact on special teams wasn’t solely as a return man as he also posted a team-leading 16 tackles in coverage, which contributed to the third-year man earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl as a special teamer.
“He is a very valuable guy to their special teams,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “He is a tough football player. I think he is a crafty runner. He sees the seams and he does a good job with that. His pure spirit, the guy gets after it in coverage and plays hard.”
The Falcons’ kickoff-coverage unit as a whole was a strength of the team this season, evidenced by their league-leading opponents’ average starting field position at the 22.2-yard line. Atlanta also led the league with 23 kickoffs covered inside the 20.
In the first meeting, the Packers’ average drive start after kickoffs was their own 17, compared to Atlanta starting at its 30. Rookie Sam Shields handled returns that day, posting a 21.8-yard average on four returns, with a pair of them going for just 15 yards each. On kickoffs the Falcons use punter Michael Koenen, who tied for No. 3 in the league with 23 touchbacks.
“He kicks the ball deep and high and they typically kick it one way,” Slocum said. “They are indoors a lot. When we played them before, we returned some balls from halfway in the end zone.”
Playing in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, Head Coach Mike McCarthy talked this week about it being a “different game” with weather conditions not being a factor like it has been in the past four games. That called for an increased focus on fundamentals, with players needing to hold their blocks longer with kickoffs and punts going longer distances.
While injuries forced a lot of shuffling on their coverage units earlier this season, the Packers have enjoyed more consistency of late, and that stability has factored into the team’s success against playmakers like Hester and Jackson.
“We’ve just got to keep it rolling,” Bush said. “Keep the confidence rolling, keep the swagger going and just go from there. Build on it. Coach McCarthy is always harping on us to stack successes, and that’s what we need to do.”
Honors rolling in
For the second straight season, a Packers defender was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by Sporting News.
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who finished No. 4 in the NFL with 13½ sacks, earned the honor in a poll of 609 players, coaches and executives. He finished ahead of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (148), Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake (64), Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison (45) and Bears defensive end Julius Peppers (44).
Matthews was the only Packer to be selected to Sporting News’ All-Pro Team. He earned Pro Bowl recognition for the second straight season and also was named NFL Defensive MVP by Pro Football Weekly/PFWA.
Cornerback Charles Woodson was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by Sporting News last season.
Matthews was also named the NFC Defensive Player of the Year on Thursday by the Committee of 101, a national committee of 101 sportswriters and sportscasters who cover the NFL.
Woodson won the same award from the Committee of 101 last season.
Few and far between
Green Bay posted its finest season when it came to penalties since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, but the team it will face on Saturday night was even more efficient in that category.
The Packers were tied for No. 3 in the league with 78 accepted penalties this season, a 40-penalty drop from their 2009 performance that saw them rank as the most-penalized team in the league with 118. Green Bay’s 78 penalties on the year beat the previous franchise low (16-game seasons) of 80 in 1983 and 2001.
Leading the NFL in the category this season though was Atlanta, who was flagged just 58 times. That was the second-lowest mark by any team since 1995 behind only the New England Patriots and their 57 penalties in 2007.
The Falcons were disciplined in each phase, with the offense recording 31 penalties (No. 2), the defense 20 (tied for No. 3) and the special teams just seven (No. 1). It was the second straight year that Atlanta’s special teams posted the fewest penalties in the league as that unit was flagged only six times in 2009.
First time around
Saturday night’s matchup will be just the third postseason meeting between the teams, and there are some connections from this year’s game to that first playoff contest.
Matthews’ father, Clay Jr., started at linebacker for Atlanta in the Wild Card contest played on Dec. 31, 1995, and recorded two tackles. Clay Jr. was 39, playing in his 18th NFL season at that point, while his son was 9.
Green Bay’s leading rusher that afternoon was current Packers running backs coach Edgar Bennett, who registered 108 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries (4.5 avg.) in the team’s 37-20 win at Lambeau Field.
Safety Atari Bigby (groin), tackle Bryan Bulaga (shoulder) and fullback Korey Hall (knee) all participated fully on Thursday after being limited on Wednesday, while defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle) was downgraded from full to limited.
Bigby has missed the last two games because of the injury, but reported no problems since passing his run test on Monday. Bigby was limited to just four games this season due to various injuries, and rotated in at strong safety for starter Charlie Peprah in the games he did appear in.
“I don’t know how they are going to approach this game as far as getting me in there,” Bigby said. “Hopefully I can get a couple of reps and showcase what I can do.”
McCarthy said Pickett was fine and that they were just being cognizant of the number of reps taken by some of the team’s older players during a short week.
Linebacker Diyral Briggs (ankle) was added to the injury report on Thursday as a limited participant.
The remainder of Green Bay’s injury report stayed the same on Thursday, including linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) sitting out once again.
Atlanta’s report didn’t change from Wednesday with cornerback Brian Williams (knee) the only player not practicing.
The teams will issue a final injury report on Friday that will include statuses for Saturday’s game.
Additional coverage - Jan. 13