When you set a bar as high as the Eagles did with their 2014 special teams performance, anything beneath that level of dominance can be, justifiably or not, a disappointment. This is a lesson the 2015 Eagles special teams have learned.
"Yeah, we knew teams would be gunning for us this year and we had to respond to that challenge," ace special teamer Chris Maragos said. "Some teams got us a little bit early in the season. It wasn't a matter of us playing down, it was a matter of them playing at such a high level. I think we've taken things to a new level lately, though. I think we've responded to the challenge."
With a blocked punt return for a touchdown along with a Darren Sproles 83-yard punt return for a touchdown in the win over New England -- it all started when New England drop-kicked a kickoff with a 14-0 lead and Seyi Ajirotutu alertly recovered -- and then Sunday's wire-to-wire domination of Buffalo on special teams -- Bryan Braman recovered a muffed punt that the Eagles turned into seven points, Sproles had a 28-yard punt return, Donnie Jones averaged 50.4 gross yards punting and the punt coverage was excellent, Caleb Sturgis was perfect on three field goal attempts and his kickoffs were outstanding -- the Eagles are back to their win-every-play ways on special teams.
It's no coincidence, then, that the Eagles are 2-0 in December as the special teams have won the third phase of each game.
"It's extremely important to win on special teams and it's something that we talk about every single day," Braman said. "We're all doing this to have success as a unit. You have to be selfless about it and we are. We challenge each other and compete with each other. It's unlike any place I know about in the NFL given what we put into special teams because we know how important it is and how we can turn games around."
The Eagles found out right from the start of this season that they would face the opposition's best on special teams. Atlanta's Matt Bryant made all four of his field goal attempts and punter Matt Bosher pinned the Eagles back on each of his four punts, averaging a whopping 57.8 yards per punt in the opening game. Cody Parkey missed a 44-yard field goal in the fourth quarter of that game and the Eagles lost, 26-24.
In the home opener against Dallas, the Cowboys blocked a Jones punt in the third quarter and returned it for a touchdown in a 20-10 Eagles defeat and, well, the message became very clear: The Eagles were the kings of the special teams hill, and opponents were going to do all they could to knock the Eagles from the perch.
"We have so much pride in special teams that we want to turn every game in our favor on special teams," Ajirotutu said. "You have a guy like Sproles back there and it's only so long before he breaks one."
Sproles has two punt returns for touchdowns this season, the first of which came in Week 3 against New York, an 89-yard dance down the sidelines that left the Jets grasping at air. It was a turning point for the special teams.
"That was a huge play in the game," Maragos said. "Anybody who doubts Darren Sproles, I mean, geez. He's maybe the best of all time."
Still, there have been some lumps. Jones had a punt blocked against Miami, and the Dolphins turned the play into seven points in a bitter 20-19 Eagles loss. Sturgis, who replaced the injured Parkey after the win at the Jets, missed an extra point and a 33-yard field goal in the narrow loss at Washington, and then couldn't connect on a 32-yard field goal against Miami, a game in which the "operation" -- the snap from Jon Dorenbos, specifically -- was not its usual spot-on process.
These last two games provided hope that the special teams, top to bottom, are ready to peak and keep it that way.
"Our goal is to win on every play," Braman said. "It's as simple as that. That's what we're here to do. We've had some pieces move around and still we've played at a high level. We know what kind of difference we can make and we've demonstrated that the last two games."
Jones is having a franchise-best season in the punt game, Sturgis has been solid now that he's got his timing down with Dorenbos snapping and Jones holding, the punt return team is a threat on every snap to manufacture a block or spring Sproles for a return, and the coverage units have been very good all season. Josh Huff is a dangerous kickoff return man, averaging 23.1 yards on 13 returns this season.
The focus is on the team's offense and defense, and that's understandable. Those are the glamour moments in an NFL game. But the special teams provide the underbelly of success, and the Eagles are doing the job in that phase of the game. Sometimes it's more obvious than other times. The Eagles, named by the Dallas Morning News as the No. 1 special teams unit in the 2014 season, are playing that way again this season.
"A game turns around on one play," Maragos said. "That's all it takes sometimes. We know we can make that kind of a difference and that's what we're shooting for. We also know that every special teams in the league is great and that they're going to give us our best shot. We love that challenge every week, man."