Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Chiefs among NFL's best on special teams
By Len Pasquarelli
Two pro personnel directors, one from each conference, weigh in on some of the NFL's best and most suspect special teams units:
It's up and it's good
Kansas City: "Still the gold standard, although Carolina is pretty darned good too, and it's not just because the Chiefs are getting all the attention with (Dante) Hall. It all starts with the head coach, and (Dick) Vermeil has always had strong special teams, and really puts a lot of emphasis on it. Their coverage units are really good and the main reason is that Vermeil believes in continuity. He's kept nondescript guys like Lyle West, (Monty) Beisel, Gary Stills around for special teams. Their "personal protector" on punts, Derrick Blaylock, is tremendous and he knows his role."
Carolina: "The Panthers don't have a marquee guy, like Hall has become for the Chiefs, but they are tremendous in just about every phase of the kicking game. They have maybe the best punter in the league in (Todd) Sauerbrun. Their kicker, (John) Kasay, has been perfect so far this year. And that crazy "He Hate Me" (Rod Smart) guy from the XFL has been a great coverage player and has a kickoff return for a touchdown. You know they sweat the small stuff, because they've got five blocked kicks. (Scott) O'Brien is a little quirky, but he's real good. He uses more starters than most guys, but he 'spots' them, and is smart in how he utilizes them."
Atlanta: "They've had a few breakdowns this year, but what unit on that team hasn't? But (Joe) DeCamillis does a good job and has for several years now. Their kicker (Jay) Feeley, has a strong leg and they get more touchbacks than just about anyone else in the league, which really boosts their kickoff coverage unit. Same way with the punter, Chris Mohr, who doesn't allow many returns. They make an effort to keep special teams guys like Artie Ulmer and (Twan) Russell and (Travis) Jervey around. And it looks like Allen Rossum is back as a solid returner after being pretty inconsistent last year."
Indianapolis: "A very improved bunch, Some excellent cover players like Cliff Crosby and Cory Bird, and there's a new guy, (Gary) Brackett, who has done a nice job. They have really benefited from picking up the rookie, (Brad) Pyatt, to return kickoffs and punts. He's not a burner like most return guys, but he just gets the ball and goes north and south, and he hits the seam pretty hard. (Mike) Vanderjagt is an enigma to me, because he has such a strong leg, but still doesn't get much depth on kickoffs. Hunter Smith, the punter, is great to have when you're on the minus-side of the 50(-yard line). He's not a real good 'touch' punter, though, and he'll outkick his coverage a lot."
Buffalo, Green Bay and Miami: "The first two are among the most improved groups in the league and the Dolphins are strong in most areas, although having (Olindo) Mare miss two potential game-winning field goals last week doesn't help them. No one has done a better job of making a quick fix than (John) Bonamego in Green Bay. I mean, the Packers have been bad for years, really miserable in '02, and he's got them playing real well. Danny Smith has really upgraded the Buffalo bunch, too. Funny how a switch in the starting lineup can help your (special) teams. The Bills replaced Pierson Prioleau at safety with Izell Reese. And so Prioleau, a superior special teams guy, replaced Reese on the coverage units and it's been a huge plus."
New York Giants: "They invested a ton of time and money in the offseason addressing their special teams. A complete turnover, every position, right? And, through no fault of their own, it's blown up in their faces. The deep snapper (Ryan Kuehl) gets tendinitis in his elbow. (Mike) Hollis, the kicker, has a bad back. Then the other kicker, Matt Bryant, gets hurt, too. Jeff Feagles is a very good punter, at least until he kicked the ball right to Brian Westbrook last week. The one thing they might have blown was signing (return ace) Brian Mitchell, who suddenly got old real fast, and hasn't done the job for them."
Tampa Bay: "For a Super Bowl champion, they aren't real strong in any area, but what bothers me is the coverage units. They don't play with the kind of aggressiveness that you would expect from this team. Maybe moving (linebacker) Ryan Nece has hurt them a little bit, I don't know. But they're just not with it right now."
Jacksonville: "At the risk of sounding cruel, maybe (coach) Jack Del Rio should take an ax to most of the guys on his special teams, huh? They don't cover well, don't return the ball well, are shaky on placements, and will be worse on punts, now that they've brought in (Mark) Royals. Could use a makeover."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.