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During this off-season a great deal of attention has been focused on how the Jets might rebuild both offensively and defensively. Yet, as is often the case, most observers have overlooked the vital role that’s played by the special teams unit. Surprisingly, roughly 20% of plays in a game will feature the special teams unit in one way or another, so with that in mind, let’s take a look at the legacy that’s been left behind by retired ST guru Mike Westhoff.
In recent years, special teams has always been an area of strength for the Jets, but last season the whole unit collapsed to the point where it finished the season ranked 28th by NFL analysts Pro Football Focus. The reasons for this decline were numerous, but foremost among them was the issue of Mike Tannenbaum’s constant tampering with the lower end of the roster; all too often new faces were brought into the squad and then, at a moment’s notice, were asked to play on the special teams unit the following week. That in itself was a recipe for disaster.
The job of the special teams coach in the modern-day NFL is not an enviable one. Thanks to salary cap constraints, teams no longer have the luxury of being able to dress a particular unit of players who are first and foremost special teams players. Consequently, coaches have to assess the back end of talent on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball before plucking individual players and trying to mould them into specialists. As if that isn’t enough of a problem, they must also tackle the fact that in most cases these players were standouts at the college level and, as a result, have never been near a special teams unit in their entire careers.
For these reasons it’s vital to have continuity within the special teams unit – and that was something which was badly lacking in 2012. Fortunately though, it looks like the core of the unit will be returning in 2013, and that could prove to be an enormous asset in terms of cutting down on ‘rookie’ errors such as missed blocking assignments, straying from lanes, overpursuing kick returners, and making basic tackling errors.
The recent re-signing of fullback Lex Hilliard had many Jets fans (this one very much included) scratching their heads, as it seemed clear that he struggled to make the grade offensively last year. But with 7 tackles made on special teams in 2012, the former Dolphin was a key part of kick coverage, and so in that sense his return to the squad may be more significant than it first seemed.
One player that will need to be replaced is wide receiver Chaz Schilens who, along with Ellis Lankster, regularly performed the role of kickoff gunner (the players who line up wide in the formation and sprint towards the receiver so as to narrow his potential return lanes). Recently signed former Raiders wide receiver Thomas Mayo could have already been earmarked for this job, although cornerbacks Isaiah Trufant and Aaron Berry will also be likely to press their claims.
The strong likelihood that Demario Davis will be elevated into a starting role will potentially leave a massive gap in kick coverage, as he led the unit in tackles (10) during 2012. This seems to be a spot that is well covered, however, and the re-signing of seasoned special teamer Josh Mauga suggests that he will return from last year’s injury to replace him.
In terms of kicking personnel, punter Robert Malone proved to be a diamond in the rough last year, while the return of kicker Nick Folk who – absent the three blocks that were beyond his control – hit on 88% of field goal attempts last year, will ensure that offensive stutters will regularly be compensated by three points being added to the board.
In summary then, rookie special teams coach Ben Kowitca is inheriting a unit that should be capable of delivering a much improved performance on the back of last year’s disaster. But if over the coming weeks and months you start to see large-scale personnel movements at the bottom end of the roster, be prepared for more mishaps in 2013.
Should the Jets focus more on special teams personnel? Or isn’t it that important? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.