The Current State of ‘Teams’
According to the authoritative ranking on special teams performed by The Dallas Morning News, the 2014 Detroit Lions finished the season with the 15th best special teams unit in football. Much maligned Jeremy Ross actually merited a 12th best overall rating from Pro Football Focus for his performance in 2014. Place kicker Matt Prater earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2013 with the Denver Broncos and after dealing with some personal demons early in 2014, found his stride and solidified what had been a sketchy Lions kicking unit. Finally, Sam Martin has continued to flash All Pro potential. The question with Martin seems to be more when (rather than if) he gets nominated for a Pro Bowl.
In light of the above the Lions seem fine on special teams – at least on paper. So why is there such angst within Lions Nation over special teams play? The answer is simple: games aren’t played on paper. While the Lions ranked about average in many special teams categories, however in critical situations when the rubber met the road special teams often let the Lions down.
Oct 5, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone (left) and special teams coach Danny Crossman (right) celebrate after a play during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Take week five of the regular season as an example. Then Lions kicker Alex Henery missed kicks of 44, 47 & 50 yards while Bills kicker Dan Carpenter nailed three of four attempts including a game-clinching 58-yard try with seventeen seconds left in the contest. As if a heartbreaking loss wasn’t enough, cameras panned over to the blood-boiling scene of Jim Schwartz being hoisted then carried off Ford Field by his players in ‘heroic villainous’ fashion.
In reviewing other disappointing moments from the 2014 season special teams continued to emerge as a common culprit. Take the NFC North Divisional Game in week 17 at Green Bay as an example. Green Bay started the game by attacking the strength of the Lions defense with Eddie Lacy. Though they found a great deal of success early, the league’s #1 rush defense regained its composure and held the NFL’s top scoring offense to no points on four attempts inside the 5-yard line.
At this point in the game the Lions made a statement to Green Bay (and to the NFL at large) that their defense was NOT a fluke or some statistical anomaly based on a ‘soft’ schedule as some suggested. The once raucous crowd at Lambeau was now silent and a somber look came over the Packer sideline as their defense prepared to faceoff against Megatron, Golden Tate and the rest of the Lions offense.
After a nondescript drive from the Lions offense, the team was forced to punt. All the Lions had to do was cover the punt effectively and give the defense a fighting chance at once again holding the Packer offense in check. Unfortunately, a missed tackle from Jed Collins (among others) enabled Micah Hyde to return Sam Martin’s punt for a 55-yard touchdown.
Dec 28, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields (37) defends the pass intended for Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) during the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 30-20. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Green Bay went on to score three more points on special teams during that game gifting the league’s #1 scoring offense ten extra points in the contest. While there is no assurance the Lions would have been able to secure a win in Green Bay it should be noted both team’s offenses scored three touchdowns in the game. Had the Lions been able to manufacture points on special teams or at least contain the Packers’ ability to do so, the outcome of the contest could have gone in the Lions favor.
The final game of game of the season also showed areas in which the Lions special teams units needed to improve. Fresh off the heels of an inexplicable reversal of a clear pass interference violation, the Lions Punt Unit essentially gift-wrapped the game for the Cowboys with an ensuing 10-yard punt. A shell-shocked Lions defense surrendered 59-yards and a game-clinching touchdown drive to the Cowboys that was fueled in no small part by poor special teams play.
Notwithstanding the above, good fortune smiles upon Lions Faithful as improvements have been in the works since the end of the 2014 season. We’ll take a brief look at why special teams should improve below.