Rizzi Embracing Change On Special Teams Units

Posted May 29, 2015

In a special Coaches Corner interview with Greg Likens of The Finsiders, Dolphins Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi discussed his excitement for the new additions to the team that could play a large role on his units in 2015.

The Dolphins made significant changes on offense and defense throughout the offseason, but the special teams also will include newcomers in 2015.

Yes, kicker Caleb Sturgis, punter Brandon Fields and long-snapper John Denney likely will remain as the kicking specialists, but the team could have a new special teams core group.

Linebacker Spencer Paysinger, and cornerbacks Zack Bowman and Brice McCain all were signed as free agents in the spring with the idea they could help the defense, but they also bring special teams experience that could prove valuable in 2015.

“We lost some real good quality players that were very productive for a few years, but I think we replaced them with guys that have had production elsewhere,” special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi told The Finsiders during a Coaches Corner installment. “Obviously Paysinger and Bowman did a great job when they were with the Giants on special teams. Brice McCain, (I) didn’t know a ton about him, but just being around him for these first couple of months, (he’s) just a guy that we think we’re going to get a lot out of as well, special teams wise. We did lose some production there, but I really think that these guys coming in are going to be able to replace that production as well as some of the younger guys, some of the draft picks and free agents.”

When the Dolphins opened OTAs this week, it gave the offense and defense the chance to start working in more game-like situations, albeit without live contact, and the same goes for special teams.

Under that setting, Rizzi and assistant special teams coach Marwan Maalouf probably can better identify those players who could help in the kicking game.

While Paysinger, Bowman and McCain already have established themselves as special teams contributors, the challenge is now for some of the rookies to do the same in practice situations.

“It’s actually the first thing we talk about, we actually kind of do a little numbers game with them,” Rizzi said. “We show them throughout the league that there’s 90 guys on every squad right now and everyone is going to be down to 53. We try to impress upon them that most rookies will have the best chance to make the team through this avenue, through the special teams route. And as we explain to them in the meeting, hey, there’s going to be guys that start, there’s going to be guys that end up in the top 11 on offense or defense and that’s great, but if you’re not, this is something that you really have to do.

“We explain to them the reality — some guys don’t make the team because they don’t contribute. And if you are going to be on the 53, there’s going to be a role for you, some way, shape or form, some bigger than others, but if you’re going to be on the 53, especially on the 46-man game-day roster, you’re going to have to contribute. You’re going to have to have a role on special teams. We try to hammer that home from day one.”

One young player who had a prominent role on special teams last season and very well might do so again is wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who not only led the Dolphins with 84 catches but also served as the team’s primary punt and kickoff returner.

Landry was good enough in that role that he finished fourth in the NFL in kickoff return average with a 28.2-yard figure and was tied for 13th in punt returns with an 8.2-yard average. Rizzi says he expects Landry to get even better as a returner, at the same time understanding Landry’s importance to the offense and the reality his role on special teams eventually could be scaled back.

“Obviously we know what he means to the offense,” Rizzi said. “He’s a valuable offensive player. And that is a delicate balance. It’s one of your jobs as a special teams coach to know how much play time the offensive and defensive starters are getting and factor that in. One of the important thing is to build up a pool of returners, to have guys that if a guy like Jarvis is gassed you can send another guy out there. That’s what we’re doing this time of year, whether it’s some of the new guys or the veterans. We’re trying to develop more of a stable of returners so we can have a little deeper pool. A guy like Damien Williams we saw back there a couple of times last year in kickoff returns.

“Jarvis is still a huge part of what we’re going to do. He’s a very talented player and we look forward to what he’s going to do in the future because I only think that he can get better as well. I think he would tell you the same. That’s really the game plan is just to kind of keep developing him as an individual and the entire group there, the returner group.”

The Dolphins were 12th in the annual Dallas Morning News special teams rankings, which breaks down where each club ranks in 22 different statistical categories.

Rizzi is more focused on what he called the six phases of special teams: field goal, field goal block, punt, punt return, kick and kick return. He also has no problem identifying where he’d like to see the Dolphins improve in 2015.

“It’s funny, when you get a chance to sit back and really evaluate, we did a real good job this past season when the other team had the ball,” Rizzi said. “For example, when they were kicking to us, when they were punting to us or they were kicking field goals, we were in the tops in the league in all those categories — field goal block percentage, kickoff return average, we obviously blocked a bunch of punts and had some big plays there.

“We need to get better this season and improve when we have the ball. Our field goal percentage needs to improve. Brandon Fields has been a tremendous player in this league for a lot of years, but he had a little bit of a down year this year for him. He still finished 11th in the league, but for him that was a down year. And then the same thing with our kickoff coverage. Those are the three areas that we need to improve on.”

While the start of the season is still more than three months away, Rizzi and Maalouf are hard at work to help produce that improvement.

And just like offense and defense, the special teams work took another step with the start of OTAs, also known as Phase 3 of the offseason program.

“Phase 1 and Phase 2, it’s really just more meeting and fundamental, technique work,” Rizzi said. “Now you can kind of put 11 guys versus 11 guys on the field and especially with the younger players get a chance to really evaluate guys moving around. And although it’s just helmets, you can at least see guys in team drills. That’s a big thing right now.”
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