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Game Changers


The five recent re-signings by the Falcons have been critical in more ways than one. On one hand the return of starting safety Thomas DeCoud and super-sub pass rusher Kroy Biermann mean stability on the defensive side of the ball. DeCoud and Biermann are part of the Falcons' solution on defense and along with the fact that they're both young and still-developing players, it's a positive move for the Atlanta.

With Biermann and DeCoud, the Falcons agreed to terms to oversee the return of tight end Michael Palmer and running backs Antone Smith and Jason Snelling. The three of them all played backup roles for the Falcons with Snelling seeing the most playing time, rushing for 151 yards and receiving for 179 last season.

But the three of them, in addition to Biermann, are all significant players on Atlanta's special teams unit, the often overlooked phase of football. While often the offensive and defensive sides of the ball have the stars, special teams mostly contains backups and players hoping to graduate to full-time duty on defense or offense.

Under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have consistently had one of the best special teams units in the NFL. While it's sometimes difficult to see how special teams play correlates to wins and losses, most players that play special teams say it's of equal importance to offense and defense. A great play on special teams, or even consistent play, can provide lifts for the other two phases of the game.

Biermann has been a steady special teams performer since he was drafted by the Falcons in 2008. Last season he was fourth on the team with nine tackles. Late in the 2009 season, Biermann showed everyone his commitment to special teams play when he subbed as the team's kick off specialist after an injury took Matt Bryant out of the game. He filled in admirably and his three kickoffs were of 67, 58 and 54 yards.

Smith had seven special teams tackles in 2011 and Jason Snelling had five. Palmer didn't have any tackles on special teams last season, but he continued to fill vital roles as a blocker in the return game.

Snelling is in second place on the franchise's all-time list with 19 special teams tackles in 2008. Rookie Akeem Dent tied that mark in 2011.

All that tackling amounted to something last season. Atlanta's punt coverage team was the NFL's best at holding opponents back in the return game. They limited opposing teams to just 4.8 yards per return and limited the returns over the course of the season to only 150 yards. Only 31 of punter Matt Bosher's 70 punts were returned.

On kickoffs, the Falcons were equally impressive. The kickoff coverage team held opponents to an average drive start on the 22.5-yard line. Atlanta also held the return team inside the 20-yard line 28 times after a kickoff last year.

While the Falcons worked to improve both sides of the ball this offseason with the signing of numerous new coaches, Keith Armstrong, the team's special teams coach, will return and he'll once again bring game-changing players with him.

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