Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Special Teams Report - Returns Needed

We have received an awful lot of questions about the special teams portion of the Dallas Cowboys over the last few weeks, so I thought I would attempt to squeeze a little attention in their direction on this short week.

Overall, it has been a mediocre, but quiet, year for the special teams. We say "mediocre" because the return teams rate near the bottom of the league as punt returning is 27th and kick returning is 29th. There is absolutely no threat back there right now when the Cowboys return kicks, and that would be the primary reason that Dallas loyalists are always wondering why Dez Bryant or Felix Jones are not back there to attempt to at least put a little fear in the hearts of the opponents. For the Cowboys to realize their full potential, at some point, someone needs to make a play in the return game.

Last year, Dez Bryant returned 2 punts for Touchdowns against the Bears and the Giants. Bryan McCann had a famous TD return against the Lions that helped win the game. On the other hand, they conceded giant kickoff returns to Marc Mariani and Percy Harvin, as well as a crucial blocked punt in Indianapolis. They even had their own kickoff return taken back by Green Bay for a TD on that forgettable night in Lambeau. All of those special teams plays - good and bad - are able to be studied in great detail on my blogs from 2010 if you are so inclined to follow the link.

This year, "quiet" might be more the way to describe the return and cover teams. There have been almost no catastrophic moments - the only moment that requires disdain would be the punt blocked in Week 1 which very likely cost the Cowboys that season opener in New York. Replays of the moment captured Tony Soprano (actor James Gandolfini) celebrating with delight in the arms of another Jets fan. The punt team parted like the Red Sea for Moses and allowed a man to come right up the middle and block a Mat McBriar punt.

Since then, all had been completely quiet until Brandon Banks used his 4.4 speed to almost break a punt return twice on Sunday. Both returns were huge, but thankfully for the Cowboys and their special teams coach, Joe DeCamillis, Bruce Carter made one tackle and punter Mat McBriar made another (sort of).

That week of poor work took the punt return coverage from 11th in the NFL to 22nd in 1 week's time and has caused a fair amount of consternation with regards to the performance levels of those involved.

Let's fill out a participation chart for Week 10 against Washington so we know who is participating on "teams" for the Cowboys:

KickoffKickoff ReturnPuntPunt Return

HTML Tables

The first thing we want to point out is the participation on all 4 teams of 7 different players. This is a very important list of players to know, and when you often ask questions about the Cowboys roster, the value of a fringe player, and the question of whether a given player is "active" or "inactive" for a given contest, look no further than this list of 7 players. This is the spine of your roster on game day to make sure that you do not lose the game on special teams.

This year, those 7 players who can play on each and every specialty team are Jesse Holley, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Alex Abright, Danny McCray, Barry Church, Bruce Carter, and John Phillips. There were 23 special teams kick and return moments on Sunday and if you are caught overlooking the importance of those few dozen opportunities, you will lose games every year. It can make a team's record better or worse than it deserves to be. Just ask San Diego, last year that team saw their entire season destroyed because their specialty teams were a mess.

That list of 7 players have the faith of the coaching staff to contribute on special teams. Conversely, one of the knocks on Tashard Choice and Kevin Ogletree has been that they are not thought to be very good on special teams. Ogletree is still being used on 2 of the 4 teams, but last year he was pulled off the kick cover team after a moment that helped cost Dallas the Tennessee game. Two other players contribute quite a bit on teams, but don't play on all 4. Phillip Tanner and Victor Butler are both key members who will be quickly inserted if there is any injury for those 7, or will fill out the 11 on the other teams.

Teams want to avoid using starters on special teams if possible, although different coaches have different philosophies. The real issue is that you continue to use young players on teams, but those young players are often not accustomed to playing on specialty teams back in college. Therefore, they are often covering kicks for the first time in years. Meanwhile, as players become bigger contributors on offense or defense, the team starts to protect them form over-use and potential injuries, and that is why a player like Sean Lee, who did quite well on special teams at times last year, never sees the field in that capacity now. He is too valuable to the defense.

Basically, it comes down to this: If you are a starter, you generally won't be asked by the Cowboys to cover or return. If you are a reserve, you better be able to play on these teams and play well (unless you weigh near or above 300 pounds). A reserve DB, WR, RB, TE, or LB simply must be great at special teams because that is where he can play between 20-30 plays in a game, even if he is getting no snaps on offense or defense. These are the players that will be active on Sunday when other players can be shut down.

Kickoff Cover Team

The Cowboys are the 9th best kickoff cover team in the NFL. They are having about 60% of kicks returned against them (20th), but when those kicks are returned against the Cowboys, they are limiting their opponents to merely 21.9 yards a return. San Francisco returned a kick 43 yards, but overall, this coverage unit is far better than last year's edition that was gashed for large yardage on a few occasions in the 1st half of the season. This put them in a very poor spot against the Vikings and Titans.

Punt Cover Team

Clearly, a big part of punt coverage is also making sure a punt doesn't get blocked. It is a very fine line because you want to stop a speedy return man, but you better not leave early or miss your block or the game will get changed with a blocked punt. In the two photos above, you can see McBriar before his punt was blocked in Week 1 and McBriar during the game on Sunday. The formation is different as the Cowboys in the first photo have 2 blockers behind the line as protectors on the flanks. Now, 26-Elam has been added straight on as a third player behind the line. This would secure the up-the-middle rush that burned them in Week 1. This alignment has been far more secure and seems to have taught DeCamillis a bit of a lesson the hard way.

Regardless, punt returns were not an issue until Sunday, and the Cowboys ranked 11th in the NFL conceding 7.7 a return, but now rank 22nd with a return average against of 11.4. Keep an eye on that as they are starting to play some teams with potential game breakers as punt returners on the horizon (Patrick Peterson, in particular).

Kickoff Return

This unit is absolutely awful. 29th in the NFL in kick returns and if you want to win a trivia question with your buddies, ask them who has the team's longest return of the year (Sean Lissemore). Somehow, New England, Buffalo, and Indianapolis have worse return teams, but the Cowboys have tried Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris, and Owusu Ansah. None of them have appeared the least bit threatening. And frankly, it appears to have zapped any confidence as the Cowboys now happily accept a touchback more often than not. It is difficult to understand why Felix Jones would not be a potential solution to this problem if DeMarco Murray is a full time back.

Punt Return

Again, 27th in the league and not the least bit threatening. I understand the reluctance to use Dez Bryant when Miles Austin is hurt, but in my estimation, this has to be strongly considered down the stretch. 7.3 yards per return when Chicago leads the league with 20.6 yards per return. You simply must have a dynamic and confident return man. Owusu-Ansah seems to lack decisiveness, explosiveness, and confidence. Each return is an opportunity and presently, the Cowboys seem to be lacking any ability to take advantage of those opportunities.

So, in conclusion, the Cowboys are getting outstanding kicking from Dan Bailey in converting their Field Goals. The punting has obviously suffered due to McBriar's injury, but it remains reasonable most weeks. Coverage teams have been fine for the most part, but cannot rest on any accomplishments as trouble lies ahead. But, if there is one place the Cowboys simply need a boost, there is no question it would be in both punt return and kick return.

With suitable options available on the roster, it will be interesting to see if they take advantage of this opportunity.

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