Sitting in a Georgia Dome training room after Sunday's 36-31 loss to the Raiders, the Falcons' Juran Bolden looked every bit the part of a special-teamer. The 6'2", 200-pound Bolden, who earned the nickname Big Stick with huge hits against the Cowboys' Herschel Walker and the Seahawks' Ronnie Harris in 1996, was wearing a neck brace and appeared more than a little groggy.
Bolden, a second-year cornerback from Mississippi Delta Junior College, sprained his neck after using his head as a battering ram while trying to break up Oakland's wedge during a third-quarter kickoff. He was knocked out briefly and had to be carted off the field on a stretcher. "It gave me a bad headache," Bolden said. "But headaches for special teams players are part of the game." Desmond Howard returned that kick 38 yards, but on the three punts he handled, he had one muff and two fair catches. Below, Bolden tells us what goes through his mind when he covers a punt.
"I'm the front gunner, the guy who lines up wide to the right and whose job it is to get to the return man first. We're all headhunters on special teams. No question. The back gunner is on the other side; he's coming all out too. The other eight guys try to stay in their lanes. The main rule we use is, Don't follow anybody wearing the same jersey. That's easier said than done. Things can get crazy. We're all converging on the ball, and one thing you have to look out for is smashing into your own teammates. It gets congested out there, and everyone is moving at a dangerous speed.
"I almost always get mugged by two defensive backs as soon as I come off the line. Those DBs will do anything—grab your face mask, hold on to your jersey, trip you or push you from behind—to try to slow you down. My first few steps are the most important. I go on instinct. If I look at the outside guy and think I'm quicker, I'll take an outside release. If I think I can fight past him, I go inside.
"Once I'm free, it's an all-out sprint to gain momentum and launch myself at the return guy. Punts are never in the air for more than four seconds or so, and you want to beat the ball downfield. As I'm running, I think of the two things I can't do: I can't overpursue and get a penalty [for interfering with the catch], and I can't miss the hit. Because a guy like Howard will find a crease and run it back. That would be a disaster.
"Most return guys are smart. They want career longevity, so they fair catch the ball, and when they do that, you circle them and taunt them, hoping they'll be dumb enough to try to run it next time. Special teams guys will do anything to get that giant hit. That's what we live for."