Following Ryan's Lead

Posted Jan 10, 2012

When the Seahawks' special teams were good in 2011, they were very good. But when they weren't, well, that's why improving the continuity and consistency are coordinator Brian Schneider's goals for 2012.

The board does not lie.

Just outside the main entrance to the Seahawks’ locker room hangs Brian Schneider’s impossible-to-miss performance board for his special teams units. Each week, the special teams coordinator grades his group in 12 categories, with a Seahawks logo being placed in the box if the goal has been achieved.

For the just-completed 2011 season, the logos run from a high of 11 (three times) to a low of three.

Is there a better indication of just how inconsistent Schneider’s units were? When they were good, as against the Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants and St. Louis Rams with those 11-logo performances, they were very good. But when they weren’t so good, as in the three-logo outing in the season opener against the 49ers in San Francisco and a four-logo game against the Cincinnati Bengals, well, the special teams’ efforts were not special enough to help the Seahawks win.

“We really started off shaky,” Schneider said. “We were young and then we had a bunch of injuries in those first couple games, so it just took us three or four games to find our rhythm. But we kept doing what we believe in and we kept talking about playing with 100 percent effort.


Here’s a look at five things that went right for the Seahawks’ special teams during the 2011 season and three things that need work as they head into the 2012 offseason:

One. Jon Ryan. The Canadian-born punter set franchise single-season records for average (46.6), net average (39.3) and longest punt (77) and also tied the mark for punts inside the 20 with a league-leading 34.
Two. Red Bryant. All the 330-pound defensive end did was block two kicks in a game. Twice. He blocked a pair of field goals in the three-point loss to the Browns in Week 7 and then got another field goal and a PAT in the Week 12 loss to the Redskins. The two blocked field goals in a game set a franchise record, as did the four total blocks for the season.
Three. Heath Farwell. When the Seahawks lost Matt McCoy to a season-ending injury, they signed Farwell, who had been a Pro Bowl special teams player with the Vikings in 2009. All Farwell did in 11 games was register 21 coverage tackles to lead not only the Seahawks, but the entire league. And Farwell also blocked the first punt of his career in Week 16 against the 49ers.
Four. Steven Hauschka. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone, but after being claimed off waivers on Sept. 4 Hauschka quietly kicked himself into quite a season in his first season with the Seahawks. He “missed” only field goal, as his unsuccessful kicks came from 61, 51 and 38 yards and he also had two attempts blocked. His 25-of-30 effort on field goals and 34-of-34 showing on PATs left him with 109 points and he also took advantage of the new kickoff rule to drill 26 touchbacks.
Five. Leon Washington. Although he didn’t break a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown, after running back three kickoffs for scores and coming oh-so-close on a punt in 2010, Washington did average 11.3 yards on punt returns to match his average from last season and rank eighth in the league. In the past eight seasons, the Seahawks have had a punt returner average double digits three times and two of them belong to Washington.
One. Ginn-ed, and Ginn-ed again. In the season opener, after cutting the 49ers’ lead to 19-17 late in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks yielded a 102-yard kickoff for a touchdown to Ted Ginn and then gave up a 55-yard punt return for a score to him – all in less than 60 seconds.
Two. Brandon Tate’s 56-yard punt return for a touchdown. After cutting the Bengals’ lead to 17-12 in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks allowed Tate to run back a punt for a score to break the game open. Making matters worse, it was Tate’s only scoring return all season – on 51 punt returns and 42 kickoff returns.
Three. Penalties. It was tempting to go with Washington’s lack of a scoring return, but that’s being greedy. As was the case with the offense and defense, the special teams units had their share of the Seahawks’ club-record 138 penalties for 1,047 wrong-way yards.

“So I was pleased with how we just kept fighting throughout the season.”

Regardless of who was in there doing the fighting. The best special teams in the NFL each season seem to be those units that change the least. Case in point: In Week 1 and Week 16, the 49ers came at the Seahawks with the same punt team.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, used 35 players on their 11-man punt team this season.

The most obvious constant was punter Jon Ryan, who broke the franchise records for average (46.6), net average (38.3) and longest punt (77 yards), as well as leading the NFL with 34 punts inside the 20 to tie another club mark.

“He’s by far the best in the NFL at doing that,” Schneider said of Ryan’s ability to drop the ball inside the 20-yard line. “Not only just the sheer numbers of it, but with his touch he’s able to do that.”

It was Ryan’s inability to consistently place the ball inside the opponents’ 20 that led to the Green Bay Packers releasing him in 2008, when the Seahawks signed him.

“That’s the type of guy he is,” Schneider said. “Jon works on it until it’s a strength for him. That’s why I love him.”

But the inconsistencies were apparent even in Ryan’s exemplary efforts. In the season opener against the 49ers, Ryan got off his 77-yarder, but also had a punt returned 56 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter by Ted Ginn – less than a minute after he had scored on a 102-yard kickoff return – to turn a 19-17 bout into a 33-17 rout.

Back to the board, and the really-good/not-so-good performances. Schneider never has had his units register a 12, so the trio of 11’s was about as good as it gets – and there also were three games that warranted a 10 and another with a 9. But those lofty logo efforts also made the 3, 4 and 5 stick out that much more.

“Our whole goal is just to support offense and defense,” Schneider said. “So most of that board is dealing with field position, and putting the offense and defense in good position to have a chance to win the game.”

Sometimes, however, the special teams took matters into their own hands.

Like in Week 14, when rookie free agent Doug Baldwin returned the opening kickoff against the Rams 37 yards, downed a Ryan punt at the 6-yard line and then blocked a punt that Michael Robinson returned for a touchdown – all in the first five minutes of the game – to earn NFC special teams player of the week honors.

Like in Week 7, when Red Bryant – 330-pound Red Bryant – blocked not one but two field-goal attempts in an effort that should have been more than enough to get the Seahawks a victory and Bryant player of the week honors. Instead, the Browns won 6-3.

Like in Week 12, when Bryant was at it again, blocking a field goal and a PAT, but in a 23-17 loss to the Redskins.

Like in Week 4, when Leon Washington had a 36-yard kickoff return and a 33-yard punt return to set up touchdowns against the Falcons; as well as his 32- and 54-yard kickoff returns to set up TDs against the Cowboys and Rams and his 36-yard punt return to set up a TD against the Bears.

Like in Week 16, when Heath Farwell blocked a punt that helped Marshawn Lynch become the first player in the league this season to score a running touchdown against the 49ers.

Speaking of Farwell, all he did after being signed mid-October because of those injuries Schneider mentioned was lead the league with 21 coverage tackles.

But the coverage units also were burned for a 56-yard punt return for a touchdown by the Bengals and, in the overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the season finale, Patrick Peterson had a 42-yard punt return to set up a field goal. The Cardinals also blocked a field goal in that game.

Up, and down. You win some, you lose some. That’s why Schneider is desperately seeking consistency from his units in 2012.

“We just need to improve the continuity of everything,” he said. “We really like our team. We’re really young. So a lot of the same guys will be coming back next season. So we just want to continue to work on that stuff.”

All that stuff. From committing fewer penalties, to breaking even longer returns. From limiting the opponents’ long returns to blocking even more kicks.

“The more consistent we can be, in all aspects,” Schneider said, “that’s just going to help our team win.”