Rookie poised to take over punt returns

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith wants more out of the return game. Maybe rookie cornerback Robert Alford can provide a spark.

All indications are Alford will be the primary punt returner when the Falcons host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Smith said the coaching staff would re-evaluate having wide receiver Harry Douglas handle punt returns, considering the shortage at receiver. Julio Jones suffered a season-ending foot injury and Roddy White is nursing a hamstring injury, meaning Douglas' role on offense is sure to increase.

Alford spent extra time after Tuesday's practice working on fielding punts. He talked about his comfort level in terms of becoming the primary punt returner. During his final year at Southeastern Louisiana, Alford returned nine punts for 104 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown against Lamar.

"I feel real comfortable," Alford said. "I've been preparing myself ever since training camp to be the primary returner. Everything still feels the same for me."

Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong talked about what Alford brings to the return game.

"I think one thing, he has exceptional speed," Armstrong said. "He's got really good vision. He's going to have to manage situations, is the bottom line.''

Douglas handled all 10 punt returns through the first five games and gained 57 total yards. He had a long return of 15 yards and three fair catches. He also fielded one punt he admitted he shouldn't have at Miami, resulting in a fumble. The Dolphins scored a touchdown following Douglas' turnover.

Douglas was asked about scaling back on punt returns.

"I'm just the type of player whatever [Coach] Smitty and them decide, I'm with it," Douglas said. "If that means having to stop doing punt returns because I've got to play more receiver, that's the decision. I never question his decision or go against his decision if anything. He's the head coach; I'm the player. I play the game; he coaches the game."

The Falcons currently are tied for 24th in the NFL in punt returns and rank last in kickoff returns, although they haven't had many opportunities to return kickoffs.

Regardless, Smith wants more out of the return game moving forward.

"We've got to get a lot more," Smith said. "On kickoff returns, it's a little bit of an issue simply because most of the kickers ... when you play indoors, you're not getting the opportunities to return the kicks. A lot of kicks this year have been kicked out of the end zone or eight or nine [yards] deep.

"We need to get better in our punt return. We're not winning the field-position battle, like we did last year, through the first five games with our ability to cover kicks and return kicks. And also, we've had a couple of turnovers that have hurt our drive start."