SUPER BOWL LII: The Difference on Special Teams

It’s Super Bowl Friday! And what better way to celebrate this special day than with a look at the contestants’ respective special teams units? 

No-one really cares about special teams, do they? It’s the position for those who aren’t really good enough to make the starting rotations, isn’t it, the cannon fodder?

And the masochists, of course. I mean, who would want to be a punter or a kicker except a masochist? You’re usually the lowest paid guys on the squad for your level of experience, and no-one else on the team loses their job over a single mistake the way that these guys do.

But special teams make a difference. Who can forget Devin Hester taking the opening kickoff back for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLI? Or the Saints‘ onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV. For all of the honour and attention given to the other two units on an NFL team, it is the third wheel, the special teams unit, that can make a difference. In this instance, it is (arguably) the area where there is the most difference between the teams, too.

Philadelphia Eagles

According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles have not had a great season on special teams, dropping from being the second ranked unit to the 18th. A lot of that comes down to a significant drop off in the return game, where they have ended up with running back Kenjon Barner as the main return man on both kicks and punts for the second season in a row, with greatly reduced results.

Punter Donnie Jones, in his fourteenth season in the league, remains extremely consistent, averaging over 40 yards per kick and landing one in three inside the opposition 20. Long snapper Rick Lovato has been another steady presence, despite this being his first season as a starter after bouncing around the league for three years.

The real star of the unit, though, has been rookie kicker Jake Elliott. Although oddly shaky on short kicks (he’s missed three extra points and almost half of his kicks from 30-39 yards), it is from long range that he has been most impressive. Only two of 19 kicks from beyond the 40 have failed, and only one from beyond the 50, with a longest of a whopping 61 yards. He seems cool under pressure, too, which he is going to need in Minneapolis.

New England Patriots

The Patriots’ special teams unit – or at least the main parts of it – is so settled that it scarcely needs any introduction. Football Outsiders have them rising from 8th to 3rd place this season, much of which has been down to veteran kicker Stephen Gostkowski having a better year, in which he has halved his number of missed field goals and been perfect from over 50 yards.

Punter Ryan Allen is another who has become part of the furniture in Foxborough. His punting distance has been down by an average of a yard this year, but this has been made up for with increased accuracy, with fewer punts sailing out of bounds and more being downed inside the 20. His left footed-ness also presents a different problem for opposing teams, to the extent that some have even worked out similar punters in order to give their returners experience of the different way that the ball spins.

The returners, Dion Lewis (kicks) and Danny Amendola (punts) really need no introduction – although it is interesting to note that, between them, they have only ever managed one returning touchdown. That was Lewis’ 103 yard burst against the Broncos earlier this year.

Two other veteran members of the unit deserve mentions. Matthew Slater is pretty much the special teamer’s special teamer. On the roster as a wide receiver, he is in the team simply to chase up kicks and chase down receivers, something which he has been doing for ten seasons now. You don’t stay in New England that long without being extremely good at your job. Meanwhile, whilst the center position has been something of a revolving door for the Patriots in recent seasons, Joe Cardona has held down the long snapper’s role and looks set to stay there for some years to come.

Richard O’Hagan

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Richard O'Hagan
Writer on such diverse topics as sport, music, theatre, law and politics. Author of 'Eddie the Sheep'. Supporter of underachieving teams, including the Chicago Bears from before that brief, heady, period in the mid-1980s when they were actually any good. All I want for Christmas is a Jim McMahon away shirt.
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