Football's Third Phase: The Kicking Game

"I started in the kicking game. That's where I got my break in coaching. I know and understand how important those guys in those positions are, whether it's kicker, punter, long snapper, returners, ball security and things of that nature."

You'd be hard pressed to go a week without hearing Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores speak to the importance of the kicking game. He and Special Teams Coordinator Danny Crossman believe there is no detail too small, no task worth taking lightly. They enjoy winning on special teams. They prioritize it and it shows.

Nobody in the NFL has more punt return yards (227) than Jakeem Grant. Jason Sanders is the only kicker with at least 10 made field goals this season without a miss – he's 15-of-15. Punter Matt Haack is ninth in net punting average (42.3) and fourth with 15 punts downed inside the 20-yard-line.

Last month, Sanders took home AFC Special Teams Player of the Month honors.

"This guy is as diligent about his craft as anyone I've been around," Flores said of his kicker. "Every kick is important to him whether it's a kickoff or a field goal."

Sunday, Grant set the record for the longest punt return in franchise history (88 yards) and re-wrote his own record for most special teams return touchdowns (five) in the storied history of the Miami Dolphins.

"He's worked extremely hard really in all areas of his game as a receiver, as a returner," Flores said. "You can kind of see some of that starting to manifest itself on the field. We all know he's an explosive player, but I'm proud of the way he's worked and kind of seen some of that."

Springing Grant on some of those long returns is the work of the unheralded players. Players like fellow wide receiver Mack Hollins, who has been an ace gunner and core special teams maven since his college days. His dedication to the craft isn't the only thing that's caught Crossman's eye.

"I think the biggest thing is Mack has a great personality," Crossman said. "His upbeat personality really transcends and really brings a lot of guys along, when you look at him in the locker room, in the meeting room, out on the practice field. He's really got a great demeanor and his approach of how he works, and I think that has a lasting impact on a lot of the younger guys."

"I think our gunners have done a nice job," Dolphins Special Teams Coach Danny Crossman said. "I think Jamal Perry and Mack Hollins have done a nice job getting down the field, which in the National Football League, if your gunners aren't down the field disrupting things at minimum, you're going to have a hard time."

The men that make up the Miami Dolphins special teams units share an affinity for the work. On top of the workload that comes from their respective positional rooms, they also carve out time for special teams meetings and film work.

"He grinds for everything that he gets," Dolphins Wide Receivers Coach Josh Grizzard said of Hollins. "And that came through special teams even from the time he was at North Carolina. So to see that and show that you can carve out a role and get on the field and make plays on special teams and come in and do things we ask him to do, I think that's a great example for everybody really to see in the room."

"Special teams has always been my roots," Hollins said. "Especially with how I made the team in college since I walked on at (North Carolina). I've learned how to manage my time with studying special teams really well but also on offense for any opportunity I get in that component in the game."

Hollins expanded on his the early leadership role he assumed in his second year in Miami.

"I was privileged enough to win a Super Bowl and go to the playoffs every year," Hollins said. "So I brought that experience to the table and usually experience is the best way to lead somebody. I try the best I can to teach the young guys the mistakes I've already made so they don't wind up making them."

We know about the guys who put the points on the board and the punter who flips the field, but what about the core players? Crossman has several that he feels are playing at a high level.

"Getting Clayton Fejedelem as the personal protector has been nice," Crossman added. "Kavon Frazier has done a nice job whether he's played inside or outside. Sam Eguavoen, Calvin Munson, Andrew Van Ginkel – they're all doing a nice job. Then you've got the guys, a lot of those guys – Kamu Grugier-Hill – that are playing on both phases. So we feel good about the core group."

Linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel is flashing in big moments on the Dolphins defense. Despite 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a 78-yard fumble return for a touchdown – the second-longest in franchise history to Jason Taylor's 85-yard rumble Week 1 of 2005 – Van Ginkel is still a focal point of Miami's special teams units. He's played 103 snaps on special teams and knows that role is just as important as rushing the quarterback.

"That's a big portion of the game that doesn't get as much appreciation," Van Ginkel said. "I know 'Coach Flo' takes pride in that, so I take pride in that as well. It's a big part of the game. Any time you can flip the field or score touchdowns, it's a huge momentum swing. It's just part of the game that goes unappreciated. I take pride in that."

Three players have multiple solo special teams tackles: running back Matt Breida, Frazier and Grugier-Hill.

Breida was getting important carries in the 49ers Super Bowl run last season. The Dolphins traded for the explosive back and special teams ace over the draft weekend both for his work on the field, but also his selfless, team-first mindset.

"I'm happy just to – like I've said before time and time again – whatever my role is, I'm going to do," Breida said. "I'm going to be happy no matter what. I'm very fortunate and very lucky to play in the NFL, so I'm not a ball guy. I'm not someone who's selfish. I just want to win at the end of the day, so whatever we've got to do to win, that's my goal."

Also acquired over the draft weekend (as a free agent signing), Frazier has three special teams tackles and hit a crucial block on Grant's long touchdown return.

"(Kavon) has good experience and has a lot of position flexibility, and has really been a good addition for us," Crossman said. "He's one of those guys that's really settling in on those four phase core players for us."

"Special teams is more of a decision than offense or defense," Hollins said. "On offense and defense, you can have a good play design that'll end up being the success whereas special teams, you're going to decide if you're going to give it your all or decide that you're going to take a play off and then something bad might happen."

Grugier-Hill, like Van Ginkel, has contributed on defense with a sack and 21 total tackles. Also like his fellow linebacker, Grugier-Hill has 111 special teams snaps.

"(Kamu is) high energy," Crossman said. "No moment is too big for him. He wants to be in there and wants to make the play in the critical situation. We're very happy with the addition of Kamu, and we're very happy with how he's playing."

The Dolphins special teams operation has been as crisp as they come. No aspect of the game is too small for Flores and his Dolphins. The team spent a sixth-round draft pick on David Binn Award winner Blake Ferguson (college football's best long snapper). Miami has not had a kick blocked or a failed snap through the first seven games of Ferguson's career.

Ferguson is one of a handful of core guys that have helped Miami climb to Football Outsiders' No. 2 ranked special teams unit in their DVOA (Defensive-Adjusted Value Over Average) metric. Using percentage points to measure the value each special teams unit provides, 17 teams have positive percentage grades in special teams DVOA.

Of those 16 teams with positive percentages, only two are in double digits – Baltimore at 12.3 percent and Miami at 10.5 percent. Third place is Seattle at 6.1 percent and by the time the list gets to No. 8 (New England), the percentage is down to 3.1. Miami's 10.5 percent special teams added value is more than double that of the fifth-ranked unit (New Orleans at 4.7 percent).

Last year, the Dolphins special teams unit earned Bridgestone's Clutch Play of the Year honors with Mountaineer Shot – a successful fake that saw Haack complete a 1-yard touchdown pass to Sanders. That play was one of a few successful tricks up the sleeve of Crossman.

"We're always working on stuff," Crossman said. "The thing with those plays is a lot of time, it's the situation presenting itself."

At the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5, the Dolphins special teams unit was presented with an opportunity to make another big play. The personal protector and special teams captain, Fejedelem, took a direct snap from Ferguson and plowed ahead to move the chains.

With a 30-14 lead and the football on their own 34-yard-line, an aggressive fourth-down decision helped Miami finish the drive in the end and put three scores of separation between them and the 49ers.

"I think in all games, you want to be aggressive," Flores said. "Danny Crossman, our special teams coordinator, did a great job of drawing up a fake for that specific situation. It came up in the game. We ran it, we got it and we were successful. I think it was a big play in the game for us. We went down and scored."

That aggressive approach pairs well with Flores' consistent message that games can be won and lost on special teams. He backed up that belief with the emphasis on bringing in players this offseason who excelled in the third phase. Those players prove his point throughout the season, but especially on Sunday with the touchdown return and five punts downed inside the 20-yard-line on Sunday.

Those players take as much pride in the value of special teams as their head coach.

"Our group has a lot of fun," Hollins said. "We really enjoy being out there. We don't look at is as 'ah dang, here comes another special teams snap.' We argue over who's going to make the tackle or the touchdown-making block. We have a lot of fun with it and enjoy being out there."

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