FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Artie Ulmer is listed as a reserve inside linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, but the sixth-year veteran owes a solid NFL career to his desire to succeed on special teams.
For five years, the former Valdosta State standout endured the grind of training camps, the aching repetition of weekday practices and the monotonous overkill of film sessions before he finally reached the moment he always longed for.
Nine months ago, more than 13.5 million television sets were tuned in to ABC and a sold-out crowd at Lambeau Field watched as Ulmer recovered Mark Simoneau's blocked punt in the end zone for his first career touchdown.
The 1-yard return gave the Falcons a 14-0 cushion that helped them leave town as the only visiting team ever to win a playoff game in Green Bay.
Looking back, Ulmer could see how Atlanta's kickoff and return units had sent a message on their first two plays.
The Falcons had cleared room for Allen Rossum to return the opening kick 20 yards. Ten plays later, Michael Vick connected with Shawn Jefferson on a 10-yard touchdown pass.
Ulmer led the charge on the ensuing kickoff as Simoneau tackled Robert Ferguson after a 2-yard gain.
"The main thing on the opening kickoff is just to put some doubt in their minds and let them know we're going to be there all day long, you know?" Ulmer said Thursday. "If you put it on him in that first kickoff, he's going to kind of be tiptoeing around there all day."
Those memories won't mean much Sunday, when Ulmer leads the kickoff and punt coverage units against Steve Smith, Carolina's All-Pro return specialist.
Smith began the season with two career touchdowns on kickoff returns and three more on punt returns, but he served the Falcons a reminder two weeks ago when he ran back a punt 52 yards in overtime to set up John Kasay's game-winning field goal at Tampa Bay.
"He can change the game," Ulmer said. "You never know. That's why you have to be up in his face all day. You've got to have your gunners win, and you've got to have guys be around him all the time. You can't have the ball bouncing around because he'll pick it up like he did in Tampa, and he pretty much won the game for them."
Smith did nothing against Atlanta last year. In the Falcons' 41-0 home victory, he called for a fair catch on his only punt return and he didn't field any kickoffs. He missed the second game, a 30-0 Atlanta victory, after serving a one-game suspension for choking a practice squad teammate during a film session.
With the Panthers off to a 2-0 start and returning from an idle week, Ulmer knows his team can't afford to let up against Smith. Two of the most important Falcons on Sunday are receiver Jimmy Farris and safety Kevin McCadam, both of whom are assigned as gunners - players who line up on each end of the line before a punt is snapped.
"You have to play smart football," Ulmer said. "You can't just run down there and watch your lane and be individual - you've just got to have six or seven guys around him all the time ready to go."
NOTES: Outside linebacker Sam Rogers tried to run with a knee brace supporting his sore left knee, but he still missed practice for the second-straight day. Coach Dan Reeves downgraded him to doubtful on the injury report. ... Vick is working out three days a week in the weight room and remains hopeful he can return in two to three weeks. Vick broke a bone in his lower right leg Aug. 16. He's been off crutches for a week and walking in a removable cast. "My right leg hasn't been on the ground in a month and I'm trying to strengthen it back up and get myself back into football shape," he said.