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Special is as special does
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The topic was the Seahawks’ special teams and John Fox’s assessment couldn’t have been more succinct.
“They’re terrific,” the coach of the Carolina Panthers said this week, as his team prepares for Sunday’s game at Qwest Field.
Fox was talking specifically about the Seahawks leading the NFL in starting position after returning kickoffs (an average starting point of the 31.3-yard line) and ranking second in kickoff coverage (22.7, just behind the Atlanta Falcons’ 22.6).
But there are so many other aspects of the units coached by Brian Schneider and Jeff Ulbrich that also have been “pretty darn good,” as Fox put it.
There is kickoff returner Leon Washington, whose nine-week run as the league leader ended this week when his 28.1-yard average tied him for second behind the New York Jets’ Brad Smith (29.2). Returning kickoffs for 101 and 99 yards in the Week 3 win over the San Diego Chargers propelled Washington to his long run as the league leader, but he also has returns of 57, 45, 42 and 41 yards. Washington also is averaging 19.5 yards returning punts, but he doesn’t have enough returns (six) to qualify as the league leader.
In the same game, Craig Terrill blocked his second field-goal attempt of the season – and seventh of his career, one shy of Joe Nash’s club record.
Kicker Olindo Mare has made 20 of 23 field goal attempts, for a percentage (.870) that ranks 10th in the league; and he’s also fifth with 17 touchbacks on his kickoffs. Punter John Ryan, meanwhile, ranks ninth in punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line (19).
Matt McCoy leads the club with 12 coverage tackles, while Will Herring (eight), Roy Lewis and Ben Obomanu (six) and Kam Chancellor (five) round out the Top 5. Thirteen players have combined to make 24 coverage tackles or down kicks inside the 20 – led by McCoy and Lewis (five) and Jordan Babineaux and Obomanu (three).
Connect the dots between all these numbers and it creates a pretty telling picture of why the special teams have been the best – and most consistent – units for the Seahawks in their uneven 5-6 season.
But why? Coach Pete Carroll explains that it’s all by design, and design.
The first plan was acquiring veterans to help form the core of these units. McCoy was signed in free agency in March. Washington was added in a draft-day trade with the Jets. Michael Robinson was signed in September after the 49ers released him. They joined Lewis, Herring, Babineaux and Obomanu. The draft delivered Thomas, Chancellor and Golden Tate, who averaged 11.4 yards return punts until Washington took over.
“So we kind of mixed and matched that,” Carroll said. “But we did make and effort – and will continue to make an effort – to find really unique special teams people.”
The second plan varies weekly, because Schneider and Ulbrich are devising ways to put their players in positions to make plays.
“Those guys have done a fine job of capturing these guys,” Carroll said. “They have a great spirit about them.
“It’s really the best, most consistent part of how we play right now and we’re counting on them.”
But why? Here’s what some of those players who are making all those plays had to say when asked the key to the special teams’ success:
Lewis, the special teams captain: “It’s preparation. The guys in the special teams unit really, really prepare well. It’s guys coming in on their days off – Monday and Tuesday – getting the DVDs, studying our opponent, knowing exactly what we’re going to do. And then the guys who give us the look (on the scout team); they do a heckuva job, too. They do a fantastic job of showing us exactly what we’re going to see, and then we prepare off of that.”
McCoy, a linebacker who has yet to play a down on defense but continues to make key plays on special teams: “We all just hustle to ball and we all care about it. It means a lot to the group, and we’re all competing with each other. So we make each other better, just by competing with each other and trying to get more tackles and make better blocks. We just feed off each other.”
“But Brian and ‘Brick’ are one of the best, because they use their players in situations that play to their strengths,” McCoy said. “We move a lot of players around to create good matchups – the right matchups. They give people a chance to be successful.”
Like after Washington had his two big returns against the Chargers. The next week, Schneider had his return unit work on taking short kicks. One kickoff against the Rams went to up-back Cameron Morrah, who had a 12-yard return against the Rams that week and also a 30-yarder against the Chiefs as teams continue to kick away from Washington. Like the day before the Week 6 win against the Bears in Chicago. Schneider had his “hands” team work against the onside kick – as he does during every Saturday walk-thru. But this time the ball went to John Carlson, who then covered an onside attempt the following day to help secure the victory.
It’s attention to the most-minute detail that has paid dividends. “We’re always working, all the time,” McCoy said.
Robinson, who was a special teams Pro Bowl alternate in 2008 while playing with the 49ers: “It’s the attitude. We’ve got guys playing on special teams that could be other places starting. And Pete puts a premium on special teams. When I was with San Francisco, our special teams were good. But we were just special teams guys. You know, ‘Those are just the special teams guys.’ But here it’s, ‘Those are the special teams guys. Those are the guys who set the tone for us.’ And I think Pete does a great job emphasizing that, and that’s why we’ve been successful.”
In an odd twist, Robinson and Ulbrich played special teams together the past four seasons. Now, Ulbrich is coaching Robinson – and earning high marks, along with Schneider.
“It is a little weird, but I’ve always had a great deal of respect for ‘Brick,’ ” Robinson said. “The schemes Brian and ‘Brick’ come up with allow us to go play. It allows us to go play without thinking. It allows me to be me. I just go out and play, without thinking. That’s what you want on special teams. If you’re thinking too much on special teams, the play will either pass you by or hit you right in the face.”
Mare, who is in his 15th NFL season and with his fourth team: “What’s the key? If I had to say one thing, I’d say guys just believe in what we’re being taught. If you see and understand what we’re doing, the results are happening. And you can’t lie with results. So I think everybody who’s on teams has bought into it.”
Mare also points out the respect factor with Ulbrich, because he has done what he’s asking the players to do. And he also praises the X’s and O’s expertise that Schneider adds to the mix.
“Guys trust them,” he said. “They’re putting us in position to succeed, and that’s a big deal. There are a lot of good special teams coaches out there, but Brian and ‘Brick’ are doing stuff that plays to our strengths.”
All big reasons why the special teams have consistently come up big this season, but each player also concurs that there also is an intangible at work here.
“Guys here want to play special teams,” Lewis said. “I was talking to (cornerback) Marcus Trufant and Babs (Babineaux) and they we’re saying, ‘I’ve never seen that before, where guys actually are excited to play special teams.’
“Tru said, ‘It’s crazy to me, because all my years it’s been like, ‘Oh, I have to play special teams. But now, guys really enjoy it and it makes it fun.’ ”
Not to mention successful and, at times, even terrific.