Commentary

Stepping into starring roles

DeCoud, Weems steal spotlight from Falcons' stars in 21-14 victory over Bears

Originally Published: October 18, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Eric WeemsKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Falcons' Eric Weems (14) accounted for 137 yards in kickoff and punt returns against the Bears.
ATLANTA -- In a white-knuckle victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday night in the Georgia Dome, all three of the Atlanta Falcons' touchdowns were scored by Pro Bowl performers.

Wide receiver Roddy White, tight end Tony Gonzalez and tailback Michael Turner each reached the end zone.

But the game actually was won for the Falcons by an assemblage of lesser-known role players, guys who might enjoy a trip to Honolulu only if they pay for it.

"We knew we had to pick up the slack," said free safety Thomas DeCoud, who had a pair of interceptions in the 21-14 victory.

"The offense was kind of struggling, and they kept moving the ball on us. We played a lot of that game on our side [of the 50-yard line] and with our backs to the wall. Someone had to make some plays, right?"

Right indeed, even if it wasn't always the usual Atlanta suspects.

DeCoud, a second-year player who had just one interception during a college career that included 45 starts at the University of California, picked off two Jay Cutler aerials. The first halted a first-quarter drive that had reached the Atlanta 12-yard line, and the second provided an undeniable spark the Falcons badly needed.

[+] EnlargeThomas DeCoud
AP Photo/John AmisThomas DeCoud picked off two passes for the Falcons.

Second-year wide receiver Eric Weems set up Turner's winning touchdown. After the Bears knotted the score at 14-14 in the fourth quarter, Weems returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards.

Backup strongside linebacker Coy Wire recovered a fumble at the Atlanta 1-yard line to squelch another Chicago drive. Tackle Jonathan Babineaux led a defensive line charge that frustrated the Bears in the red zone. The underrated offensive line kept quarterback Matt Ryan unsullied and unsacked for a fourth straight outing.

These role players boosted Atlanta to its first 4-1 start since 2004, when it won the NFC South title with an 11-5 record.

"Sometimes some other guys have to step up," said Ryan, who sputtered through an uncharacteristic performance. He completed only 19 of 33 pass attempts for 185 yards, with two touchdown passes but also two rare interceptions. "I guess that's why they call it a team, you know?"

Weems' long return came with a little more than six minutes remaining, moments after Cutler's 2-yard scoring pass to tight end Greg Olsen tied the game at 14-14. The return was somewhat ironic, in that it was Bears special teams star Devin Hester who many believed would be the difference in the taut contest.

Weems' return put the Falcons on the Bears' 41-yard line. Seven plays later, Turner blasted 5 yards to complete a drive in which Gonzalez snatched two receptions for 31 yards, including a 16-yard grab on a third-and-6 play.

Said coach Mike Smith: "Because of the presence [of Hester], our guys really wanted to measure themselves on special teams this week."

The victory kept the Falcons within shouting distance of division leader and unbeaten archrival New Orleans (5-0). It was Atlanta's third straight home victory. With Smith coaching and Ryan at quarterback, the Falcons are 10-1 in the Georgia Dome.

The multiple-interception game by DeCoud, in addition to representing the first two pickoffs of his brief NFL career, was the first by an Atlanta player since former Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall pilfered two versus Tampa Bay on Sept. 17, 2006. The initial interception helped keep the Bears out of the end zone.

DeCoud's second interception came in the second quarter with Chicago ahead 7-0. Cutler badly overthrew a seam route for Olsen, and DeCoud intercepted it at the Falcons' 30. His 15-yard return set the Falcons' offense up in decent field position.

Until DeCoud's second pick, the Falcons' offense had four possessions that totaled just 14 snaps, 14 yards and one first down. On the two possessions immediately following the second DeCoud theft, the Falcons scored twice, on a 40-yard pass to White and a 10-yarder to Gonzalez. Atlanta led 14-7 at halftime.

DeCoud credited extra video study and improved concentration on the ball for his showing against the Bears.

In a 26-10 Falcons loss at the New England Patriots in Week 3, DeCoud dropped two would-be interceptions. A 2008 third-round draft choice, DeCoud is in his first season as a starter after a rookie season primarily on special teams. The Falcons declined to re-sign veteran strong safety Lawyer Milloy, moved starting free safety Erik Coleman into his spot, and created an opening for DeCoud to play.

"A lot of guys showed that, when given an opportunity to make plays, they can do it," said Babineaux, who came up with at least three red zone stops. "We kept grinding, and every time we kept them out [of the end zone], it kind of fed on itself. You could feel the momentum building. We were determined to stop [the Bears]."

Chicago is 3-2 and lost at the Georgia Dome for the second year in a row. The Bears cost themselves with untimely penalties, including a false start against left tackle Orlando Pace with the ball at the Atlanta 5-yard line with just 1:05 remaining. However, it was Chicago's failure to cash in on scoring opportunities that proved most damning.

Thirty-nine of the Bears' 68 offensive plays came on the Atlanta side of the 50-yard line. Chicago had 18 snaps in the red zone, yet scored only once inside the 20, because of turnovers, penalties and a variety of other errors.

"We've been playing good red zone defense all season long," Smith said. "The guys just made plays when the opportunities arose."

They just weren't the guys you normally expect, that's all.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.