Lost in all the talk about the Broncos great defense and sluggish offense is the third area of importance to any NFL team: Special teams.
In my rankings yesterday, I wondered why certain teams ranked low in Football Outsiders DVOA rankings for special teams. FO has a detailed breakdown of special teams and what they look for in each area.
To summarize, FO compares how each team does compared to the league average for all 32 teams. You can follow the link above for detailed explanations, but there are a few things that are worth keeping in mind.
When FO rates a punt that isn’t returnable better than one that is, keep in mind that net yardage remains a factor, but that FO is distinguishing between, for example, a punt from the 25-yard line that goes out of bounds at the opponent’s 35-yard line and a punt that goes from the 25 to the opponent’s 15 and is returned to the opponent’s 35. In other words, it accounts for the punter and the coverage unit in rating the punting game.
Similarly, a kickoff that is a touchback would be considered a bigger positive than a kickoff fielded in the end zone that is returned to the 20-yard line or close to it. On the other hand, a kickoff returned from the end zone to the 14-yard line would be a bigger positive than a touchback, because the kickoff coverage unit is recognized for limiting the return.
The former doesn’t mean any punt that goes out of bounds is positive, because net yardage still applies. The latter doesn’t mean the best option is a returnable kick where you keep the opponent from reaching the 20-yard line, because players are generally coached not to return a kickoff fielded in the end zone unless they see the opponent isn’t covering the field well.
We’ll start with looking at the Broncos in 2014. Special teams was a concern then, but most of what we talked about was how much Britton Colquitt regressed, Brandon McManus’ struggles and how his replacement, Connor Barth, couldn’t kick touchbacks.
Those factors were reflected in Denver’s DVOA ranking last year. The Broncos were ranked 27th overall in special teams, 27th in field goals and extra points, 26th in kickoffs, 25th in punts and 27th in punt returns (that also indicated a weak punt return game). The Broncos fared well in kickoff returns, ranked fourth, thanks largely to Omar Bolden emerging down the stretch. But in the other four areas, the Broncos had a negative number.
Still, it’s easy to see that special teams was a major concern for the Broncos last year. Had John Fox been retained as head coach, I’m pretty sure John Elway would have pressured Fox to make a change in special teams coaching, because not only did Colquitt and McManus struggle, but the coverage units weren’t good. And while talent was a reason, coaching was another and arguably the bigger reason.
So how do the Broncos measure up through six games? If you look at the 2015 rankings through Week 6, Denver ranks ninth overall. So far, that’s a significant improvement.
A big reason for that is Denver ranks second in field goals and extra point (only Seattle is ranked higher). But the same applies to kickoffs, where Denver is ranked 15th (tied with San Francisco) and with punts, where Denver is ranked 13th.
On kickoffs, McManus has obviously been a reason why the ranking has improved, but the coverage units are doing a better job, too. Note that McManus has not had touchbacks on all his kickoffs, even when kicking at home, so the coverage unit is still important. Colquitt has had a few poor punts, but he’s had his share of good ones, and more importantly, the Broncos are covering punts better, forcing teams to either signal for a fair catch or not yielding more than a couple of yards on a return. Remember, a punter that routinely kicks the ball to the opponent’s 10- or 15-yard line does you no good if you don’t keep teams from returning the punt.
There are two areas in which Denver arguably can improve. The Broncos are ranked 19th in kickoff returns and 26th in punt returns. Last season, a major problem for Denver was finding a reliable player to return punts. Isaiah Burse started the season there but had little success, forcing the Broncos to use Wes Welker. This season, it’s been Emmanuel Sanders fielding most punts and he hasn’t found much room. On kickoffs, Bolden hasn’t been as effective, plus he’s missed a couple of games with injuries. Andre Caldwell, who struggled last year on kickoffs, has fared better in the games he’s fill return duties, but he lacks the explosiveness that Bolden showed at times last year.
The flipside, though, is to look at the teams who are among the best in punting and kickoffs. In punting, Kansas City is ranked second and Baltimore is ranked third, so that’s two teams the Broncos have faced who have fared well in that department. The Broncos haven’t faced a top-five team in kickoffs, but they’ll face their first one after the bye week, fifth-ranked Green Bay. So it could be argued that, when it comes to punts, part of the equation was Denver facing a team that has a combination of a good punt and a good punt coverage unit.
What about other teams? Seattle, of course, has reliable kicker Steven Hauschka, plus Tyler Lockett returning punts and kicks. The Seahawks rank first not only in field goals and extra points, but in kickoffs, are tied for second in kick returns and ranked fourth in punt returns. It’s no wonder FO ranks Seattle the best in overall special teams.
On the other end of the spectrum is the New York Jets, who FO ranks the worst in overall special teams. The Jets are the worst in punts and have a negative number in every area except kickoffs. This is why field position could be a weak spot for the Jets, particularly when playing the better offenses in the NFL. True, the Jets have one of the best defenses, but you don’t want a punting game that can’t pin opponents deep in their own territory and put the defense in a rough position.
But the good news for the Broncos is they are playing better special teams this season than they did last season. It hasn’t been perfect, but if the coverage units continue to perform well and Colquitt can minimize his mistakes, special teams should remain a positive for the Broncos most of the time.