FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. --- Eric Weems doesn't have much time to make an impression. A few seconds here, a play or two there.
So he must think fast, be decisive and put out of his mind that 11 guys are bearing down on him with bad intentions. When it all works out, Weems might just be the most important player on the field for the Atlanta Falcons.
The little-known player out of little Bethune-Cookman College has come up with huge kickoff returns the past two weeks to help the Falcons (10-2) extend their winning streak to six in a row. They have the best record in the NFC heading into the final month of the season.
Atlanta plays at Carolina (1-11) on Sunday.
"We know it's an important phase of the game," Weems said. "It doesn't get looked at as much as the offense and defense, but we feel like any special teams play can make or break a game."
Last Sunday, after the Falcons surrendered a touchdown that gave Tampa Bay a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter, Weems took the kickoff, cut to his right, broke at least three tackles and tiptoed along the sideline before bursting free on a 102-yard return for a touchdown that sparked Atlanta to a 28-24 victory.
The week before, Green Bay scored a tying touchdown with less than a minute to go and everyone settled in for overtime. Not so fast. Weems took the kickoff, shot through a seam and might have gone all the way had a Packers player had not yanked him down by the facemask. The personal foul moved the Falcons across midfield, and they quickly struck for the winning touchdown.
Atlanta coach Mike Smith knows it takes someone special to handle the role of kickoff and punt returner.
"You have to be fearless," he said. "You have to have good vision and no fear. Guys are running down the field, sprinting full speed at you. You've got to have no fear of taking the big hit, because you are going to take some big hits in the kicking and return game.
"That has to be one of your toughest players."
Only 5-foot-9, Weems has been one of the league's most effective return specialists. Among those with at least 10 kickoff returns, he ranks third in the league with a 28.1-yard average. He also brings back punts for the Falcons, ranking among the top 10 with a 13.2-yard average.
Not bad for someone who played at a Football Championship Subdivision school and wasn't even drafted after his college career.
"It's all hard work and determination," Weems said. "The guys at the smaller schools are hungry just like the other guys. You see what type of team we have here. Everyone has to play a role in order for us to get where we're going."
The Falcons have another key player who wasn't drafted after playing at schools below the NCAA's elite division. Starting cornerback Brent Grimes, from Division II Shippensburg State, had a game-clinching interception against the Buccaneers.
"It really says a lot about the ability of the scouting staff to identify players, regardless of where they played ball collegiately," Smith said.
Weems returned punts at Bethune-Cookman, but he didn't add kickoffs to his repertoire until he got to Atlanta.