TAMPA, Fla. -- On the official roster the Atlanta Falcons handed out before Sunday’s game, cornerback Brent Grimes is listed at 5-foot-10 and return man Eric Weems is listed at 5-9, which appears to be more than a little generous to both. By early in the evening, they were standing 6-9 and talking like a couple of NBA power forwards. And their teammates and coaches couldn’t be generous enough with praise.
On a day when the biggest Atlanta stars (Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner) weren’t having great days, the two smallest Falcons stepped up with huge plays. Weems returned a fourth-quarter kickoff a franchise-record 102 yards for a score after the Falcons had fallen behind by 10 points. Grimes intercepted a Josh Freeman pass on the first play after the two-minute warning to seal a 28-24 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
“I love those two little guys,’’ White said. “We needed a spark and they gave it to us. It just shows how talented this team is when you can keep relying on different guys to make big plays for you.’’
“They may be small in stature,’’ Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “But the attitude they bring and the plays they bring are that of giants.’’
On a day when Ryan (18-of-36 for 205 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 62.8 passer rating) and Turner (3.7 yards per carry) seemed off, the Falcons needed to reach deep into their roster to win their sixth consecutive game and their 10th of their past 11.
Grimes and Weems put the Falcons at 10-2, kept them atop the NFC South and made Mike Smith the first coach in Atlanta’s 45-year history to record more than one 10-win season.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to find a way to win when you’re not playing your best,’’ Smith said.
Weems and Grimes provided the way as the Falcons remained the team with the best record in the NFC.
“That’s what this football team is all about,’’ Smith said. “We never blink and we’re very resilient.’’
When he’s talked about his team’s resiliency in the past, Smith often has used the words “heart’’ and “effort’’ to elaborate. He didn’t use those words Sunday, but he didn’t have to. Weems and Grimes already had shown plenty of heart and effort on the field.
“Size doesn’t matter in this league,’’ Weems said. “It’s about heart and determination. It’s about the size of the heart. Guys like us, we have to step up and make plays. The stars can’t make all the plays.’’
Although he’s in his fourth season with the Falcons and has been a steady return man the past two seasons, he’s an unknown to many. Understandable because, entering Sunday, Weems had 116 career punt and kickoff returns but none of them had gone for a touchdown. But there’s one very important man in Atlanta who has known about Weems since long before he came to the NFL.
That’s Smith. Although there’s a significant age difference, Smith and Weems grew up in the same area in Daytona Beach. Weems went to Seabreeze High School. Smith went to a nearby private school, Father Lopez High, but several of his siblings went to Seabreeze and his father once coached there.
“You always keep track of your hometown,’’ Smith said. “I was very aware of Eric during high school and even when he went to college at Bethune-Cookman and always kept an eye on him.’’
Weems actually joined the Falcons a year before Smith. He wasn’t much of a factor in 2007, but even Smith will admit he’s a bit partial to Weems because of the hometown connection and that may be part of the reason he has developed as a return man and a receiver.
The heart and the effort don’t hurt either, and it’s the same with Grimes. He also joined the Falcons in 2007 as an undrafted player out of Shippensburg (Pa.). When Smith and his staff arrived the next year, they saw Grimes’ size and immediately had some doubts that he could play cornerback in the NFL.
Despite repeated attempts to bring in other cornerbacks that better fit the prototype, Grimes gradually won over the coaching staff with his heart, effort and athletic ability. He has emerged as a full-time starter for the first time this season and had four interceptions before Sunday. But there’s no doubt Grimes’ interception of Freeman was his biggest yet.
Freeman, who has shown a knack for late-game heroics, had the Bucs driving. They were at Atlanta’s 27-yard line when the two-minute warning came. Freeman threw for Mike Williams, but Grimes picked off the pass at the 19-yard line and took off down the sideline.
He returned the interception 33 yards and drew a 15-yard penalty as Freeman hit him after Grimes had gone out of bounds. From there, the Falcons were able to run out the clock.
Grimes also had an apparent interception earlier in the game. But the acrobatic play was ruled an incomplete pass after a replay review.
Grimes’ plays weren’t all that surprising. To a man, every player on the roster and every coach on the staff will tell you Grimes, who has a 40-inch vertical leap, is the best overall player on the Falcons. Weems isn’t far behind.
“I’ll tell you what, they both can play some basketball,’’ White said. “Grimes can throw it down and Weems can dunk it, too.’’
Stand next to either of them and that’s a little surprising to hear. Their listed heights must have been measured when they were wearing extra-large spikes. In the locker room, they both look to be about 5-8 -- maybe.
“We go at it in practice every day,’’ Weems said. “I’ve got him though. He’s a little [guy].’’
When Grimes was told of Weems’ playful barb, he laughed, just a little.
“No, I’ve got him,’’ Grimes said. “I’ve got him by a quarter inch, maybe even a half inch.’’
It doesn’t really matter. On Sunday, the two tiny Falcons were unquestionably giants.