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Fan-Demonium: Improvement Here Is A Must

Posted Jun 23, 2014

When the Eagles were at their peak in the Andy Reid era, the special teams units were one of the big reasons behind that success. David Akers was among the best kickers in the league. Brian Mitchell and Brian Westbrook were dynamic returners. Ike Reese and Quintin Mikell were key leaders on the coverage units. Mike Bartrum was one of the best long snappers in the league.

The Eagles could count on solid, reliable special teams play, but also got some big plays from the units. Everyone remembers the onside kick to open the Pickle Juice game against Dallas on opening day of the 2000 season. There was a fake punt against the Texans in 2002 that Brian Dawkins turned into a 57-yard touchdown. Akers and Koy Detmer combined on a few fake field goals over the years. I don't think anyone will forget Westbrook's punt return against the Giants in 2003 that won the game for the Eagles, 14-10. The offense was anemic that day, gaining just 134 yards. The team won because the defense kept the game close and the special teams provided a big play.

Special teams play has been highly inconsistent in recent years. Chip Kelly wants that to change.

Kelly isn't relying on miracle cures. He expects some returning players to get better, but is also bringing in some outside help. The team traded for Darren Sproles to add some punch to the return game. Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman were signed to boost the coverage units. Nolan Carroll was signed to provide depth at cornerback, but also because he is a very good gunner on the punt coverage unit.

Draft picks could also help out. Marcus Smith is a big and athletic. He plays well in space. Smith could be very good at covering kicks and punts. Both Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff could help the return units, as well as the coverage units. Jaylen Watkins should become a key part of the coverage units. Safety Ed Reynolds is a good tackler and physical player. He has the skill set to be good on coverage units.

Obviously, you can't talk about special teams without discussing kicker Alex Henery. He had an up and down season in 2013. He went 23 for 28 on field goals, which is a solid percentage. The problem is that Henery missed four of the 12 kicks he attempted from 40 or more yards out. His longest field goal was 51 yards.

Kickoffs were another issue. Henery was 15th in the league in the number of touchbacks, but that stat isn't as good as it sounds. Because the Eagles scored a lot of touchdowns and had more kickoffs, Henery's number of touchbacks was somewhat inflated. He was 20th in the league in touchback percentage.

Many people expected the Eagles to bring in a serious challenger to Henery. The team signed undrafted free agent Carey Spear. He's got a very strong leg, but kickers can take time to develop. People remember Akers as a star kicker for the Eagles. They don't know that in 1997 and 1998 he was with the Falcons and Panthers, but couldn't keep a job. Akers was signed by Washington in 1999 and then they cut him. The Eagles finally got him and gave him time to develop. Akers spent some time in NFL Europe and then had the full-time kicking job in 2000.

Special teams coach Dave Fipp has talked about Henery's need to improve. The Eagles obviously feel like Henery can do that or they would have moved on from him or brought in a veteran challenger. Fipp has had a whole offseason to work with Henery on honing his technique on field goals and kickoffs. We'll have to wait and see what kind of a difference this makes. I do think Henery knows he must have a better season.

Beyond improvement from Henery, the Eagles must get better in other areas. The return game hasn't been enough of a positive factor in several years. Sproles could be the answer on punts and kickoffs. His long kickoff return in the Wild Card meeting with the Eagles was arguably the play of the game. Chip Kelly's offense proved to be dynamic last year despite having the 25th best kickoff return unit and 27th best punt return unit. Imagine how much better the offense can be if you can give it better field position.

Lawlor

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.

The Eagles will use a variety of skill players to challenge Sproles for the return jobs. Damaris Johnson and Brandon Boykin have the most experience, but neither player has yet to emerge as a consistently good returner. It is fair to wonder how good the blocking has been. That is another area where Fipp will want to see improvement. Too often we think returners make all the difference. That's not the case. They need good blocking.

One special teams unit that thrived in 2013 was the punting game. Veteran Donnie Jones did a terrific job with both distance and ball control. Jones punting was only half of the equation. The coverage unit was equally outstanding, especially Boykin. He proved to be one of the best gunners in the league. Boykin consistently got off blocks and was able to either down the ball or affect the punt returner.

The Eagles only allowed 8 yards per punt return, which was 11th in the league. Maragos was a key member of Seattle's special teams, that allowed just 3.9 yards per return. That is dominant punt coverage. So even where the Eagles are good, they can still get better.

Think back to some of the Eagles losses last year. There was a missed field goal in the Chargers loss. There was a missed field goal and a 57-yard kickoff return in the loss to the Chiefs. The blowout loss to Denver included two special teams miscues. Trindon Holliday returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown. Jones had a punt blocked and Steven Johnson returned that for a touchdown. You can't expect to beat Peyton Manning when you give him 14 special teams points. Special teams struggled in the playoff loss to the Saints.

If the Eagles are to become a championship contender, they must perform better on special teams. This means doing the basics (blocking, tackling) better as well as making some big plays. If the Eagles are going to beat teams like the Broncos and Saints, they must at least have a draw in the kicking game. They cannot afford to be giving away points and field position.

Kelly has devoted a lot of practice time to special teams. He targeted players in free agency and the draft who could come in and help. The Eagles don't just want to get better. They are making moves so they can get better. Soon enough we'll find out if they made the right moves.

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