I will certainly admit that the topic that I am most curious about in the NFL, but know the least about is special teams. As much great information is out there in this age of deconstructing Sundays like never before, there is almost nothing that discusses special teams topics such as how the teams are constructed with a game-day roster in the NFL (where with only 45 spots, nobody can just be wasted), and then tactically how these special teams attempt to accomplish their missions; ie, winning a game with a huge return and not losing a game on a huge return.
The Cowboys are also going through the first year with new special teams coach Rich Bisaccia who is best known for his special teams work in Tampa Bay (during the Kiffin era) and then on to San Diego. But, regardless of who the special teams coach might be, he is constantly at the mercy of the head coach giving him the resources to put together proper special teams. If only the offense and defense determines who gets a jersey on game day, then you run the risk of these special teams moments going the wrong direction and perhaps costing you a game or a playoff berth. You don't want that.
Special teams average about 20 plays a game around the NFL, with roughly 5 kickoffs, 5 punts, 5 kickoff returns, and 5 punt returns. Your kick coverage can be helped by a kicker who can put touchbacks into the end-zone, and Dan Bailey has the 3rd most touchbacks in the NFL this season (although his touchback percentage is a more pedestrian 13th), as the easiest way to cover a kickoff is not to have a return at all. But, to the credit of the guys who are covering kicks and punts, the Cowboys are in the top 10 in punt coverage (average returns allowed) and Top 3 in kick coverage. That is awesome and a sign that this group is getting it done.
Meanwhile, as we mentioned a few days ago, Dwayne Harris is the industry leader since the start of 2012 with an insane 18.1 yards per punt return average in his last 22 games. Nobody has been better. Add to that his kickoff return average of 34.7 which also leads the NFL in 2013, even though he has only returned 9 kicks so far.
As Dwayne was kick to point out, he is the return man, but none of this is possible if he doesn't have 10 other guys busting their tails to give him a chance. Once he gets into the open field, he takes most of the credit, but to get there, they need a return team that is on the same page. Let's take a look at the big punt return TD from Sunday night's win where if this were hockey, he would clearly have been the #1 star of the game.
First, if we were to review the special teams charts from Week 1, we would see that the 11 on punt return duty has remained almost identical to what it was 6 games ago. Ernie Sims, Barry Church, and Edgar Jones are off - Danny McCray, JJ Wilcox, and BW Webb are on, but the other 8 are exactly the same. Of course, McCray would have been there in Week 1 if he was healthy, and Edgar Jones would likely still be on here if he was healthy now. So, really, we are just talking about trusting the rookies Wilcox and Webb to handle their business as we get to mid-season, and otherwise, this unit is getting used to each-other.
Another detail here is that this punt was the 2nd punt in this sequence. Washington punted the first time and it was downed at the 15, but was guilty of illegal motion. The Cowboys could have had the yardage enforced at the spot of the punt being downed, or they could ask for a re-punt. Everyone in the league swears that this makes all of the difference in the world - to make a coverage team sprint down twice and I hesitate to automatically believe it without the data to prove it, but this one small sample indicates that the Redskins - a team already thought of as having very weak special teams - was susceptible to a major disaster that would turn the game against them.
So, this is the 2nd punt, and one that Harris took all the way back to the end-zone, for his 2nd Touchdown of his career.
So, here is the roll call, from left to right, 39-Carr, 32-Scandrick, 40-McCray, 51-Wilber, 38-Heath, 57-Holloman, 58-Bosworth, 20-Webb, 27-Wilcox, 24-Claiborne, and then, 17-Harris back deep for the return.
Cowboys are running the return left, which causes those on the right to attempt to get between their man and the Redskins' sideline. They simply want inside position and just basically impede their ability to flow to the ball. Wall them off at the hash marks, if possible. Meanwhile, those on the left and middle just need to give Harris a spot. In particular, this will fall to Jeff Heath, #38, who has the job right in front of Harris to give him an opening with a well-timed block.
Here, above, you can see 38-Heath sending 37-Reed Doughty to the ground, and Brandon Carr is running his guy past Harris. Harris already knows where he is headed and because the punt beat the coverage down the field, he is able to get a running start and is headed to that left sideline. You can see how 40-McCray already has the outside shoulder of his man. 32-Scandrick is locking in on a target as he has left Carr with the outside man.
Again, you can see how quickly this happens. Harris sees his path and many of the Skins are already out of the play. The real key here is McCray versus 36-Darrel Young, the Washington Fullback. He has the best chance to get to Harris and almost does, but McCray does a fantastic job of just getting in the way in a legal block.
Now, Harris runs by McCray and Young, and you can see Scandrick lock in on the next threat, 54-Darryl Tapp. Meanwhile, Sav Rocca, the Washington punter is looking like their only chance, but 27-JJ Wilcox (who is off the screen still) is about to eliminate him from the blindside.
Above, Scandrick vs Tapp and Wilcox vs Rocca is all that Harris has left. He will jump inside Scandrick and Wilcox will easily eliminate the punter and it is a footrace between Dwayne Harris and a bunch of players who don't share his gift of speed in Red jerseys.
Here, notice 58-Bosworth with the inside edge on 56-Riley and otherwise, it is over.
Here you see why teams want cornerbacks and wide receivers on their coverage units. Instead, it looks like Washington has decided to go with linebackers, safeties, and fullbacks. That is fine, unless it turns into a footrace. Then, it is game-over if he gets a head start like this. Touchdown.
The kick return that came later was equal in its awesome impact and combined, he took this game over. But, let's recognize the great job of the entire special teams squad and coach Rich Bisaccia through the first 6 games of the season.