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Confidence vs. coverage
Patrick Peterson (twice). Randall Cobb. Danny Amendola. Ted Ginn Jr. Stefan Logan. Percy Harvin. Marcus Thigpen.
One by one, week after week, the Seahawks have faced – and deflated – some of the best punt and kickoff returners the NFL can throw at coverage units. Sunday, in Toronto, they’ll tackle the current leader of the pack in the Buffalo Bills’ Leodis McKelvin.
McKelvin leads the NFL with an 18.7-yard average returning punts, in very large part because he has touchdown returns of 88 and 79 yards – and also had an 80-yarder for a score nullified by a penalty. He is averaging 28.3 yards returning kickoffs, too, which ranks fifth in the league – and makes him the only returner in the NFL to rank among the Top 5 in both categories.
“He’s just very talented,” said Heath Farwell, who leads the Seahawks in coverage tackles. “We’ve got our hands full this week for sure.”
But this week McKelvin will be trying to do his thing against one the best coverage units in the league. The Seahawks have yet to allow a return – kickoff (40) or punt (30) – of more than 40 yards. Only two other teams can make that claim, the Chicago Bears (17-yard punt return, 38-yard kickoff return) and Green Bay Packers (20 and 38) – two teams the 8-5 Seahawks already have beaten, in part because they kept the lid on Packers returner Randall Cobb and the Bears’ Eric Weems, who was subbing for an injured Devin Hester.
In stark contrast, the Bills have allowed a 96-yard kickoff return and a 75-yard punt return – both for touchdowns.
The Seahawks have had success kicking away from returners, as was the case with the Dolphins’ Marcus Thigpen as Steven Hauschka drilled each of his four kickoffs for touchbacks. They’ve also had success with Jon Ryan lofting punts outside the hash marks, forcing fair catches or giving rookie Jeremy Lane time to down the punt.
Ryan gives McKelvin his due, but also says the Seahawks won’t overdue it in trying to contain him.
“He reminds me a little bit of Hester in some of the things he does,” Ryan said. “He’s been impressive this year. He’s dangerous. But I don’t think we’re going to change up a lot in what we’ve been doing. I’ll try to put the ball outside the numbers for those cover guys, and they’re going to go down there and do what they’ve been doing.
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here.”
That’s because the aggressive, yet controlled, efforts of those coverage units has been a huge reason for the Seahawks’ success. Farwell leads the Seahawks’ No. 3-ranked special teams with 13 tackles, but Chris Maragos (eight), Michael Robinson (seven), Jeron Johnson and Byron Maxwell (eight each) and second-year linebackers Mike Morgan and Malcolm Smith (five each) also have been factors.
This spreading of the coverage tackles is integral to their success.
“We’ve got a great group, everybody is contributing, and coach (Brian) Schneider does a heckuva job just getting us prepared every week,” Farwell said. “It’s a different guy each week. Last week, it was Mike Rob. This week Kam (Chancellor) had a couple of tackles. It’s endless. It’s Maragos. It’s Malcolm.
“It’s just something we hang our hat on and we’re proud of it, the way we play. The effort is just unbelievable, and it’s not one guy. It’s a group effort.”
Or as Maragos put it, “You try to take one aspect away, the other one comes. You try to take that one away, another one comes. It’s a good group. And I think it’s really paid dividends for our team this year. It’s been wild. It’s been fun.”
Now comes their biggest test yet in McKelvin, who hasn’t met a punt or kickoff this season he didn’t think he could return for a score.
“He has become a guy that has a great deal of confidence. He thinks he is going to break every kick,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “That’s what makes a great returner. There are a lot of guys with ability out there, but that confidence to think you are going to break every kick for a touchdown (is the difference). He’s trusting his blockers, about where the ball is supposed to be, and then he has been able to make a guy or two miss.”
The smile that washes across Maragos’ face when asked about McKelvin shouts, “Bring it on.” It’s the Seahawks’ side of the confidence game that comes from punting three times last week and turning one into a touchdown on a muff by Peterson, another into a forced fumble that set up a touchdown and the third into a pin-them-deep kick that preceded an interception return for a touchdown.
“You’ve got a guy like Patrick Peterson who is strong, he can slash and this guy is very similar,” Maragos said. “He’s very quick. He does a really good job of setting up blocks. He’s a one-cut guy, when he knows where he wants to go he sticks his foot on the ground and goes. He’s deceptively strong. He’s really got the whole package, and it’s a big test at hand.
“But we’re excited for it.”