Dolphins Special Teams Earning High Grades

Posted Oct 16, 2012

Third phase of the game keeps coming up big for Miami.

Special teams jumped to the forefront again in last week’s 17-14 win over the St. Louis Rams, giving special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi plenty to break down on film.

All of the accolades rained down on safety Chris Clemons for executing the gutsy fake punt late in the game on a fourth-and-1, but that was just one of a handful of big plays made by Rizzi’s unit. And that doesn’t include the hidden yardage only Rizzi and his staff can identify.

Marcus Thigpen had a 44-yard kickoff return to open the second half and also recovered a fumbled kickoff late in the first half. Long snapper John Denney forced a fumble during punt coverage and punter Brandon Fields averaged 50.3 net yards and 53.8 gross yards, and all of those plays were worthy of getting good grades.

“We evaluate the same way and basically we look at the six major phases – punt, punt return, kick, kick return and field goal, field goal block,” said Rizzi, who is in his first full season at his current position. “We kind of grade it all the same way. You take each unit individually and then at the end you kind of look at it collectively. One thing we’re always doing in each individual phase, if it’s the coverage teams obviously we’re grading simple things like tackles and then we’re looking at more extensive things like did the guy fit the right way or speed down the field, so it’s kind of intricate in every phase.

“The same thing in the return game; in the one-on-one matchups did the player win his block and his matchup and not just the end result, so you kind of break it down like an offensive or defensive play. It’s no different than breaking down a running play on offense or a run fit on defense. Then collectively at the end we look at what the major positives were and then we look at bigger things like what was St. Louis’ average starting field position. So we take small things first and then we broaden it out and it’s the same thing individually, which is why we came up with the term of everybody doing their 1/11th.”

What makes things more interesting for Rizzi when it comes to looking at each individual is how he has to handle those players like Clemons, Nolan Carroll, Olivier Vernon and Marlon Moore that have significant roles on offense or defense. Vernon, who had his best defensive performance against the Rams with two sacks and four tackles, actually injured his ankle covering a kickoff and then had to stay on the field with the field goal defense unit after his last sack because the Rams tried a 66-yarder.

To that end, Rizzi has a smaller number if plays to look at with those players because he has to limit their snaps based on how much they are being used by their respective primary units. The last thing Rizzi wants to do is have someone like Carroll or Vernon be too gassed in the second half to properly perform their primary job, but Carroll for one appreciates both of his roles equally.

“For me, that’s what I started doing and that’s why I made the team was from special teams,” Carroll said. “Special teams, some people see it as a burden because you’re only out there for a play here and there and everybody wants to play offense or defense. But if you just take it as a privilege and just do your job when you’re out there it pays off. You’re out there for a reason because your role is important so you have to go out there and say, ‘I’m going to make this play,’ or ‘They’re not going to make this play,’ if you have that mindset going in it’ll make it much more fun and important to you and you’ll go out there and execute.”

When the special teams executes like they did against the Rams, everybody is having fun – unless you were the Rams and on the opposite side of that fake. Denney did say he heard some of their players calling out to watch for the fake but acknowledged that’s protocol before the snap anyway and he could tell they weren’t really expecting it.

Once Clemons took the snap and easily picked up the first down, the contrast in emotions was palatable as the Dolphins sideline was full of energy and players jumping up and down. Over on the St. Louis sideline, heads were hanging and the team was clearly deflated.

“We know we’re capable of those kinds of games and so that just kind of confirms what we know that we can do that,” said Denney, the longest tenured member of the team. “We’ve just got to make sure that we don’t get complacent and still work hard every week to try and achieve that every week.”

Rizzi wears his emotions on his sleeve during games and can be seen and heard throughout, but Denney revealed that he’s more reserved during the practices and in meetings. He will let someone know when he’s unhappy, but the happiness of his players is paramount to him.

So the last thing Rizzi, assistant special teams coach Dave Fipp and Head Coach Joe Philbin did on Sunday night while watching back the game film was play and rewind the reaction after the fake punt. They smiled each time they saw it and Rizzi couldn’t help but keep hitting the rewind button.

“I think it’s one of those deals where as soon as you know you got the first down you obviously have great satisfaction,” Rizzi said. “But even better than that is when you come in and watch the film and watch the players’ reaction, that’s awesome. We probably rewound the thing at least 30 times just to watch different guys and watch the guys get excited. That’s what it’s all about because when these guys have that much at stake and you know how much hard work they put into it, when they make a big play like that at that time of the game, it’s huge. To watch them all react to the success of the play, that’s the great part.”
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