Seahawks 2012: Special teams

Posted Jul 19, 2012

As good as the Seahawks’ special teams were in 2011, the Brian Schneider-coordinated units have the potential to be even better – and more consistent – this season.

The special teams don’t simply comprise a third of the Seahawks’ overall team, it’s a particularly pertinent third.

Just how significant are their contributions? Last season, when the special teams gave the offense the ball inside the 50-yard line, the Seahawks scored 77 percent of the time. Conversely, when the special teams put the defense inside the opponents’ 20-yard, the opposition scored 17 percent of the time.

Special team’s coordinator Brian Schneider shared these stunning statistics with his unit in June, during one of the final meetings prior to the players departing for their extended break before training camp practices begin July 28.

“It’s a pretty cool deal,” Schneider said. “If we can create a really long field for the defense, we’re really successful. If we get a short field for the offense, we’re really successful. And when you put those numbers on it, it just kind of gives some value to it.

“It’s that hidden yardage that you can’t see. But when you put some numbers to it, it’s pretty impressive.”

Yes it is, and so were Schneider’s units last season.

It starts with the Pro Bowl-caliber trio of punter Jon Ryan, kickoff and punt returner Leon Washington and coverage man Heath Farwell.

Ryan led the NFL with 34 punts downed inside the 20 last season, when he broke his own club records for average (46.6 yards) and net average (39.3), as well as getting off the longest punt (77) in franchise history.

“Jon has had a great offseason. He just keeps getting stronger,” Schneider said. “He had a great season last year, and was really as good at the end as he was at the beginning. He just puts in the work, and it’s great to see.”

Washington returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in 2010, his first season with the Seahawks after being acquired in a draft day trade with the New York Jets. While he didn’t score last season, Washington did average 25.2 yards returning kickoffs and 11.3 yards returning punts – which ranked 11th and eighth in the league.

Farwell did not join the Seahawks until late October last season, but he still managed to lead the league with 21 tackles covering kickoffs and punts in only 11 games. Like Washington (2008 with the Jets), Farwell is a former Pro Bowl special teams player (2009 with the Minnesota Vikings) with the talent to earn a return trip.

While any discussion of how good the special teams were last season – and could be in 2012 – starts with these three, it doesn’t end there. Red Bryant blocked a club-record four kicks last season, while Doug Baldwin and Farwell blocked punts. Kicker Steven Hauschka made 25 of his 30 field goal attempts last season, with two of the misses coming from 61 and 51 yards and two more on blocked kicks. Long snapper Clint Gresham has brought stability to a spot that was in turmoil for too long before he was signed in 2010.

“He’s done a great job,” Schneider said of Gresham. “And he’s to the point where he’s taken the next step in his career, which is how he’s going to play for a long time if he can continue to do that. He’s refining his craft and he’s putting in more time and he’s taken it more seriously.

“Not that he wasn’t before. But there’s just a different level that he’s going through. What he does is a definite specialty, and he does a great job of it.”

Not everything came up roses last season, however, as the coverage units allowed Ted Ginn to return a kickoff (102 yards) and a punt (55) for touchdowns late in the fourth quarter of a 17-point loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener and also gave up a 56-yard punt return for a score in a Week 8 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

But the coverage units should be improved because of the infusion of speed that came with this year’s draft choices. On back-to-back kickoff coverage drills during one of the last OTA practice, the first three players down the field were first-round draft choice Bruce Irvin, second-round pick Bobby Wagner and fourth-round pick Robert Turbin.

That’s 248-pound rush-end Bruce Irvin, 241-pound middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and 222-pound running back Robert Turbin. They have the size and speed to be difference-makers on special teams as well as defense and offense.

“They’re very athletic guys who can run and are good football players,” Schneider said. “We’ve just got to put them in the right situations, because it’s different than offense and defense. There are a lot of wide-open spaces and a lot things happen at a fast pace. So you have to make fast decisions and you cannot hesitate.”

For do-as-they-do role models, Schneider has Farwell; Matt McCoy, who led the team in coverage tackles in 2010; and Robinson and Roy Lewis, who have been special teams captains the past two seasons.  

But the bottom line for Schneider remains consistency. In the hallway that connects the locker room and the training room hangs a huge board which Schneider uses to grade his units in 12 categories. Last season, the Seahawks recorded a high of 11 (three times), but also a low of three.

“Let’s get eight and above every game,” Schneider said. “Then you’re going to be winning a lot of games.”