Special Teams Having A Special Season

Posted Dec 1, 2011

So much about the outcome of football games is determined by field position, yet the role of special teams still tends to get overlooked.

Unless that unit is scoring points via kickoff and punt returns or giving up points on the other end there is little written or spoken about special teams. Those players lining up for the Miami Dolphins tend to prefer it that way so they can simply go about their business, but this season they have been doing a good job in all phases.

Special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi took over a special teams group last year that had been drawing attention for the wrong reasons, especially after a Monday night loss to the New England Patriots where it took center stage. Since that night when New England blocked a punt, blocked a field goal that was returned for a touchdown and returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown the unit has been solid.

“Schemes are great, the guys are excited about them and trust them, but as far as things coming together it kind of goes to the guys,” said running back Lex Hilliard, who recovered a blocked punt in the end zone against Buffalo two weeks ago for the unit’s only touchdown. “We’re excited to be out there, excited to make plays and excited to see others around us doing well, so that’s kind of what’s driving the special teams unit.”

Through 11 games this season Miami has not allowed a kickoff or punt to be returned for a score and has only had one field goal blocked. Opposing kick returners are averaging just 21.4 yards per return, the fourth lowest average in the league, and punt returners aren’t faring much better, especially with punter Brandon Fields leading the league in punts downed inside the 20 with 24.

Opposing returners have found it tough sledding on kickoffs and punts against the Dolphins, with the longest punt return against them going 45 yards and the longest kickoff return going 43 yards. The discipline that comes with staying in your lanes in coverage has gone hand in hand with each player trusting his teammates around and behind him while running down the field. The players on special teams call it the 1/11th approach.

“It’s something that when I took over it became our battle cry and it’s kind of an accountability thing,” Rizzi said. “I think sometimes in our phase you can be worried about maybe too many things and if everyone is just focusing on their 1/11th, their part it just seems to come together better. I think the guys have kind of bought into it and it’s been a real nice thing to watch. You hear guys saying it and repeating it and they’re taking ownership.”

Rizzi is dealing with a good mix of experienced veterans and rookies or second and third-year guys on special teams so he’s had to temper his approach a little. By simplifying the focus to that singular approach he has seen positive results in each of the first 11 games.

In addition to hearing the players recite the battle cry, Rizzi has been able to watch it unfold on the field and that has been an added bonus for him and Dave Fipp, his assistant special teams coach. They can see their system is working and can hear it when their players talk to each other.

“The biggest thing is knowing your role and if you know your role on each and every play and where you’ve got to be and every guy does his job and is not playing for himself that’s how your coverage unit can keep the opposition to low returns,” said linebacker Jason Trusnik, who leads the unit in tackles with nine. “When you get down there as one of the first guys you can take your shot knowing that your guys are right behind you to clean it up. You’ve got a lot of guys out there competing, trying to make a play and playing with a lot of effort. That’s how you have good special teams.”

Rizzi is the man who pulls the strings on special teams and his attention to detail paid off on that blocked punt against Buffalo. He preaches repetition in practice and breaks down film of every opponent looking for weaknesses that can be exposed in punting and kicking situations.

Chris Clemons is the man who blocked Brian Moorman’s punt and explained how Rizzi had prepared him and the rest of the punt return unit for that possibility. Earlier in the game Clemons saw his first chance to block it countered by a different blocking approach by the Bills so he backed out, but the second time when that blocker slid over and took off down the field he had a clear path and took advantage.

“He brings something different to the table every week,” Hilliard said of Rizzi. “He knows our opponent and not to mention where all 11 guys are going on the field at once. He definitely brings that energy right before the play right before we go out there because we only have one opportunity to make a play and it’s on fourth down or a kickoff. So he brings that energy to get us all going and get us all riled up to do well out there.”

This Sunday will be another challenge for Rizzi and the special teams on both ends as the punt return unit will need to hold their blocks for Davone Bess a little longer. Raiders punter Shane Lechler leads the NFL with a net average of 51.5 yards and kicked one 80 yards last week.

Jacoby Ford, who ran back the opening kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown in last year’s 33-17 loss to Miami in Oakland, did not practice Wednesday with a foot injury. But if he gets healthy in time for Sunday’s game those Dolphins coverage guys will have to be on their toes, which has not been a problem so far this year.

“Because of the swing in field position on special teams I think what we try to continue to preach is that these plays are going to be the most noticeable in terms of field position and game changers,” Rizzi said. “The thing about special teams is there’s no second down. That’s the thing with 1/11th is you have to go on the field and perform right now. There’s no getting three shots to do this, it’s going on the field right now, taking ownership of it and knowing that we don’t get a second chance. That’s why I think guys like Lex and Trusnik and all of the guys have excelled.”
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