There’s that old saying about fool me once, fool me twice, etc., and this week the Packers don’t want to write a punch line for fool me three times.
Atlanta return man Eric Weems hit the Packers twice last year for big kickoff returns, and the Green Bay coverage units must deal with Weems once again on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
“It’s not really that he fooled us,” Packers safety and cover man Charlie Peprah said. “It’s not like he surprised us or anything. He won his battle. He made his plays and we didn’t stop him. We have to stop him this time around.”
Weems broke free for a long return in each of the Packers’ trips to Atlanta last year.
In the regular season, in the final minute of a tie game, he took a kickoff four yards deep in the end zone and brought it back 40 yards, getting an extra 15 for a facemask penalty on the tackle. The return allowed the Falcons to start in Green Bay territory as they drove for a last-second, game-winning field goal.
Then, in the playoffs, Weems got loose and went the distance, 102 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter to give Atlanta a 14-7 lead. It was the last time Atlanta led in what became a Green Bay blowout, but it was the kind of play that can swing a game.
Those returns obviously have been part of the Packers’ film study this week, as has Weems’ 2011 season so far. He hasn’t posted a high-impact return, yet, with his longest at 36 yards on kickoffs and 19 yards on punts, and it will be up to the Packers to keep him searching for his first big play of this season.
“They’re running the same things they’ve run for a while,” Special Teams Coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “So we’ve studied that, and I like where we are personnel-wise, matching up.”
Personnel-wise, the Packers look a lot different on their coverage units this year. As many as four rookies – linebackers D.J. Smith and Jamari Lattimore, and tight ends Ryan Taylor and D.J. Williams – are playing regularly on special teams and contributing.
Smith, Lattimore and Taylor all have at least three coverage tackles so far this season, with Smith tied for the team lead with third-year linebacker Brad Jones with four.
“As a rookie, we talk about it a lot – just be accountable,” Smith said. “We want to be here for years and years to come. Right now our job is special teams and we need to be an asset.”
The latest asset could be Williams, who is new to special teams after being such an integral part of the offense in college at Arkansas. He covered his first kickoff last week to open the Denver game and immediately was in on the tackle.
“Those guys we’re talking about have good instinct for the game,” Slocum said of the rookie class. “They have a good feel. At the same time, they’re physical, they’ve got good toughness and an excellent approach to the job.”
Added Head Coach Mike McCarthy: “There’s a reason we kept 10 rookies. They’re progressing nicely.”
Since a rough opening night, the results show it. New Orleans returner Darren Sproles had a big game in Week 1, but two weeks later Chicago’s Devin Hester was held in check and then last week Denver’s Quan Cosby – who had burned the Packers for a big return with Cincinnati two seasons ago – wasn’t a major factor.
Cosby and Cassius Vaughn each brought one kickoff out beyond the 30-yard line for the Broncos, which Slocum didn’t like because on both plays he said the Packers had opportunities for tackles around the 20, but neither return was damaging.
The best way to limit Weems may be for kicker Mason Crosby to take advantage of the new kickoff spot at the 35-yard line and the climate-controlled dome to boom as many touchbacks as possible. If that doesn’t work, the Packers – including the rookies – know what they’re in for.
“He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s an animal back there,” Smith said of the 5-9, 195-pound Weems. “He’s a real physical runner.”
Injury update: McCarthy gave updates on several players on this week’s injury report. Here’s a rundown.
On right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who still hasn’t practiced since injuring his knee in Chicago in Week 3: “If he doesn’t practice tomorrow, he won’t play. That’s where we are with Bryan. He’ll see the doctor in the morning.”
On receiver Donald Driver (shin), who returned to practice in full pads Thursday after sitting out Wednesday: “He felt fine, took all of his reps. He looked like Donald. Yesterday was more of a precaution.”
On running back Ryan Grant, who has been a full participant in practice both days this week after missing last week’s game with a kidney bruise: “He’s ready to go. He’s back to his old self. He was punchy as hell today at practice. That’s a good sign. He’s ready.”
On linebacker Frank Zombo, who was a limited participant for the second straight day after missing six weeks with a broken scapula: “I had a chance to speak to him briefly after practice. He’s gotten a lot better today than he was yesterday. He feels good. We’re just waiting for him to get cleared full-time from the medical staff.” Additional coverage - Oct. 6