Special Teams – not a phrase that has given Bills fans a special feeling over the years. Some of the most gut-wrenching moments in franchise history, identifiable by name, have involved the Buffalo special teams unit in some shape or form.
And while the 2013 season did not produce moments quite to that caliber, it did produce plenty of criticism from fans and media alike when it came to Buffalo special teams.
I’ll admit I was one of the many who identified Special Teams Coordinator Danny Crossman as a major concern this offseason. He brought with him to Orchard Park a less than stellar special teams resume, and his unit contributed in high-profile fashion to a number of losses in 2013. The Bills finished near the bottom of the NFL in most return categories and did not produce a kick or a punt return for a score.
But through two games in 2014, the Crossman-coached unit gets an “A+” in my book.
Let’s start with week one at Chicago. The obvious contribution came from kicker Dan Carpenter’s three field goals – the third of which won the game in overtime. However, the impact of the special teams stretched far beyond the field goals. The Bears were limited to one kick return for 21 yards and one punt return for minus one. Colton Schmidt, in his first game with the team, punted five times at an average of 43 yards. He planted the Bears inside their own 20 on four separate occasions. Two of the drives that started inside the 20 resulted in a turnover, and each of the four ended without a Chicago score.
Week two versus Miami was even better. This was one of the top special teams performances in recent Bills memory. Carpenter booted five field goals – the first three staked the Bills to a 9-0 lead, and the final two added insurance in the 29-10 final. Schmidt didn’t produce a great per punt average, but that is a result of each of his attempts occurring near midfield. In a total of four punts, Schmidt forced Miami to open three drives inside its 20. As you probably guessed, each of those three drives ended without points. An additional punt inside the 20 resulted in a muffed punt recovered by Bills linebacker Randell Johnson at Miami’s 17 yard line. Those performances alone would make for a successful game, but there were two major impact plays that made Sunday’s outing elite for the special teams.
With his team leading 3-0 in the first quarter, running back “Boobie” Dixon broke through the Dolphin line for a blocked punt which would eventually set the Bills up at Miami’s 31 yard line. Carpenter hit his second field goal six plays later.
Early in the third quarter, Miami scored its first points of the game to cut the Buffalo lead to 9-3. On the ensuing kickoff, C.J. Spiller bolted 102 yards for the franchise’s first special teams touchdown return since Leodis McKelvin against the Dolphins on November 15, 2012. Many of you probably remember that moment as the famous “Leodis, my man” call by WGR’s John Murphy. Even though it is likely that other speedsters on the roster could have glided through the hole created by the Bills blockers, you have to imagine that Doug Marrone cracked a bit of smile considering all of the criticism he has received for deploying Spiller on kick returns.
I know, it is only two games. But take a look at the contrast in numbers for the categories in which the Bills ranked so poorly in the league last season.
|Kickoff Return Average||20.4||35.2|
|Punt Return Average||6.2||7.5|
|Net Punting Average||38.0||38.8|
|Opponent Punt Return Average||10.6||2.0|
The statistics listed for 2014 are game-changing numbers, and we have seen that in the 2-0 start. Why the sudden improvement? I’ll give you the answer in one word – personnel. When asked about Crossman’s job security early this past offseason, Marrone defended his coordinator and pointed to a need for “core” special teams players.
That’s exactly what the Bills got with the offseason additions of Dixon, Johnson, Corey Graham, Keith Rivers and Preston Brown. With players like Marcus Easley and Ty Powell already in the mix, the talent on Buffalo’s special teams unit is now quite formidable.
The late-August release of fan favorite Brian Moorman and subsequent signing of Schmidt also appears to be a major upgrade. Schmidt’s hang time and direction on punts has left opposing return men with little do other than waive for a fair catch.
With all of this said, there are still 14 games left to play. A lot can change in just a week, but the early indicators are pointing toward one heck of a turnaround for Danny Crossman and the Bills special teams unit.
Until next time, keep “BILLieving”