The Current State of the Detroit Lions Special Team’s unit

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Change is Good

The most important change that has taken place on special teams this off-season involves movement at the top. On February 8th, Central Michigan University hired alumnus Jon Bonamego away from the Lions to serve at the University’s head coach. A few days later rumors began to emerge suggesting Head Coach Jim Caldwell had pegged Joe Marciano to be the team’s new special team’s coordinator. Shortly thereafter, the speculation ended when Joe Marciano was named as Bonamego’s successor.

May 27, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions special teams coach Joe Marciano during OTA at Detroit Lions Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of coaching ability the Lions are hopeful Mariano ends the season having acquitted himself as equal to, or even better than Bonamego. In the short-term this development immediately upgrades the special teams unit as coaching changes invariably catalyzes players to compete for favor with the new man in charge. In the long-run the Lions would love to see Mariano show more attendance to detail than his predecessor.

Justin Rodgers of captured Martin’s indecisiveness which led to the 10-yard punt. “It was a confusing call,” Martin said. “First we were pooch punting, then we had a delay of game and got pushed back. It was a borderline pooch-punt or full-punt range. I wasn’t sure what I was going to go. The ball came and I hadn’t decided yet. I took my steps to do one thing and did my drop to do another. I’ve never done that in my life. A bunch of things went wrong at one time.”

In the NFL there are times when an athlete needs to be an athlete and simply has to make plays. There are other times when down, distance and situation require players to execute a specific game plan. A detail-oriented coordinator would never have left such a critical detail in a playoff game in the hands of a 2nd year player. Bonamego should have had clear and concise instruction for his unit to follow. Instead, details that should have fallen to the coordinator fell to the athlete and the pressure of doing two jobs at once overwhelmed the Lions’ budding special teams ace.

According to Tim Twentyman of, Marciano’s first two priorities were to build competition within the return game and improve blocking. Whether his plan is successful or not is to be determined later in the season, at this point it’s reassuring to have a coordinator that has a plan and is developing a roster that can put it into implementation.

Aug 9, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) runs with the ball after getting away from Detroit Lions linebacker Kyle Van Noy (95) during the third quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Because of the blueprint Marciano has introduced, the Lions have slightly altered their approach in acquiring players this off-season as opposed to 2014. For example, last year the Lions traded up in the 2nd round to select Kyle Van Noy. The hope at the time was the newly drafted linebacker would emerge as a Terrell Suggs type of player who could impact the game as a hybrid OLB/DE causing matchup nightmares for Lions opponents. Unfortunately, injuries prevented that from materializing. When Van Noy finally returned from injury in week 10 the team’s coaching staff tried to work him back into the lineup by exposing him to special teams. Van Noy never looked comfortable on special teams and wasn’t able to displace Tahir Whitehead from the starting lineup. Should Van Noy continue to prove unable to succeed in unseating Whitehead as a starter or showing enough potential as a situational pass rusher to force Austin to use him in certain packages, he’ll have to find a way to excel on special teams.

Ashley Dunkak of CBS Detroit captured Martin Mayhew’s view on the issue as thus: “So many times you take these guys who have been, say, four-year starters at safety or linebacker and have not played on special teams, and we bring them here and try to teach them how to do that,” Mayhew said. “It’s so much better to get a guy who at least did that for a period of time in his college career who knows what you’re talking about as far as how to cover a kick, how to cover a punt, so we tried to get some guys who had some experience in that area.”

In 2015, this shift in philosophy led the Lions to draft players like Abdullah, Burton and Diggs not only because they were some of the best players available at their respective positions, but also because they should provide day 1 support for all four special teams units.

Another welcome change over which Lions fans should rejoice is the return of honest competition at all positions. To Caldwell’s credit when he arrived in Detroit he instilled a sense of competition along the roster such that there were legitimate camp battles opposite Suh at defensive tackle as well as at right tackle and receiver. This year, Jeremy Ross is entrenched in competition at two different positions; 3rd wide receiver and returner. Of all camp battles to watch this one could have the most impact on returns.