Time does not allow me to break down the special teams on a week by week basis, but when something big happens in the special teams, we need to make the time. After the Chicago game, we examined Dez Bryant's punt return for a TD , but let's not look the other way when the Cowboys' special teams have another big play happen on their watch. This time it is a large negative play when allowing the dreaded Kick-Off return by Percy Harvin that turned Sunday's game in mere seconds.
Of course, to put this picture properly in its frame, we need to remember that the Cowboys "kick cover" team was gashed for a huge return one week prior in the loss at home to Tennessee and Marc Mariani. On top of that, the Cowboys have the dead-last 32nd ranked kick cover team in the entire league. After this Tennessee return you can see below, the Cowboys replaced 3 guys off of this cover team 20-Ball, 85-Ogletree, and 52-Williams. I have no proof WHY they replaced these 3 players, but it does seem suspicious that Ball and Ogletree were the two players on the far left that Mariani and the Titans attack on that return. If they protect their flank, the huge return likely doesn't happen, and then during the week, they are both taken off the coverage unit and replaced.
They were replaced by Gerald Sensabaugh, Orlando Scandrick, and Jesse Holley for Sunday's game. I wish I had knowledge of the turnover of the kick cover teams on a week by week basis, but I don't. I do however, have the opening night coverage teams and you can see that 8 of the 11 players who covered kicks in Week 1 were running down the field against Harvin. Only Michael Hamlin, Deon Anderson, and Kevin Ogletree were not there Sunday.
The reason I point this out is simple - they are limited in their options (you will not have Miles Austin or Jay Ratliff covering kicks) but, they do seem to be changing out players constantly to get this unit in order. It certainly isn't working, but it isn't from a lack of shuffling the deck. When you see bottom of the roster transactions, you can bet that Joe DeCamillis is working to clean up his special teams.
OK. Let's talk kick coverage. I wish I knew more about special teams, but I really am doing a lot of common sense guessing here so please understand that some of the more general concepts about kick returning make sense to me, but when my sources get complex on the issue, I sometimes struggle.
But, What you see above is how the 22 players were deployed at the start of the Harvin Return in Minnesota on Sunday.
The Cowboys had the following 11 players on kick cover from left to right: 43- Sensabaugh (L1), 32-Scandrick (L2), 58-JWilliams (L3), 40-McCray (L4), 17-Hurd (L5), 18-Buehler (K), 16-Holley (R5), 57-Butler (R4), 50-Lee (R3), 27-Owasu-Ansah (R2), and 42-Church (R1).
And what you see is a rather standard return scheme from the Vikings. Their 6 players up front attempt to get bodies on 32, 58, 40, 17, 50, and 27. Then, the 2 Vikings in the wedge in front of Harvin get 16, and 57. If this works (which it clearly did), the Vikings have eliminated the 8 players who are most likely to doom a middle return.
Take a look at how the play matched up, below:
It is my understanding that the Vikings (or any return team, for that matter) want their guys up front and the wedge to clear out the middle 8 of the Cowboys on a "middle return". That would leave the kicker, and the two guys on the edge unaccounted for. The two wide players for the Vikings in front of Harvin are 59-Farwell and 40-Kleinsasser. This is where I would love for a special teams coach to walk me through their responsibility, but my common sense guess is that they are pretty much assigned to clean up the scraps and help where help is needed. Kleinsasser pretty much isn't needed to do anything but get on 18-Buehler, while Farwell helps out on McCray.
So, the Cowboys edge guys go untouched - but that appears to be the design of the return. In any offense vs defense concept, there will always be someone who is unblocked because the ball carrier cannot block for himself. This is really true on special teams play, so if the return team cannot account for everyone, why not leave the guys furthest away with the worst angle unblocked? Sensabaugh and Church have to keep contain, because if there is one thing the L1 and R1 players cannot do on a kick cover it is lose the edge to a speed burner like Harvin. "Turn it back inside" is a yell you will always here at special teams practices. So, they cannot cheat on their angle of attack.
Now, the moment of truth. The Vikings get 10 hats on 9 players. None of the 9 can defeat their blocks enough to get Harvin. That leaves 2 Cowboys untouched who will each get a shot at the returner. If they don't get him, this is going to be ugly.
Sensabaugh has him at the 25 and completely whiffs. That simply cannot happen. He is a starting safety who is used to open field tackling, and he hardly gets Harvin to break stride. Poor technique and poor execution. From there, Church gets a shot 5 yards later and while he didn't have as good a shot at him, he didn't slow Harvin down either.
I am sure it is a concept that they work on over and over again. If you are unblocked, we cannot miss. The fact that L1 (Ball) and L2 (Ogletree) were beaten last week in the Mariani return and replaced by a new L1 (Sensabaugh) and L2 (Scandrick)- then the new L1 misses a wide open tackle show you how frustrating it can be to coach special teams.
By the way, overall, we should point out that the Cowboys did not keep gap integrity or stay in their lanes. You can see 58-Williams over pursue and take himself out of the play. You can see most of the left side collapse to the right before Harvin catches the kick. To say you could navigate the Queen Mary down the middle of that field may be an overstatement, but the Cowboys sure made this look easy for the Vikings.
Special teams can win or lose games for you, and in each of the last 2 weeks, the Cowboys gave up gigantic returns and lost by 1 score. Do the math.
Feel free to leave comments below, special teams experts, and tell us what else you see from the kick cover unit.