Recent rule changes have impacted special teams play as much as any other element of football. Despite kickoff return numbers plummeting year-over-year, the Dolphins continue to find a way to dictate the terms of the game and pile up victories in the hidden yardage department.
Miami's 16.8 yards allowed per kick return is best in the NFL. Only 18 kickoffs have been returned against the Dolphins (12th-fewest in the NFL) and it's difficult to argue with the results. Only four teams have allowed less cumulative yardage on kickoffs than Miami's 302 (Carolina, Washington and Cincinnati).
All of those teams have at least five fewer return opportunities than the Dolphins' unit, a number that is created by design, according to Special Teams Coordinator Danny Crossman.
"I think it's a combination of a lot of things. I think it's something that we look at on a week-to-week, game-to-game basis based on our opponent, based on other situations once we truly get into the game," Crossman said. "To be able to have some of that ability – for lack of a better term – to dictate what's going on is something that 'Flo' (Head Coach Brian Flores) talks about."
Any way you slice it, Crossman's special teams units have been among the league's best. Nobody has more punt return yardage (319) than Miami. Two teams have a higher field-goal percentage than Jason Sanders' 96 percent hit rate (Atlanta and the New York Giants). Miami's 56 punt return yards allowed are fourth-best in the NFL and only five teams have downed more punts inside the 20-yard-line.
One of Flores' greatest strengths as a coach and a leader is his trust and faith in his staff; his ability to empower coaches like Crossman to do what they do best.
"I trust that they're going to have the answers we're looking for in their respective side of the ball," Flores said. "I'll make suggestions, but at the end of the day, I try to let those guys coach and then obviously occasionally I'll make my thoughts known. But I think it's worked out for the most part."
As the numbers tell you, it's working out. In addition to the league's best kickoff coverage unit, Miami racks up even more hidden yardage through penalties. Each of the last three weeks the opposing kick return unit committed a foul on a Dolphins kickoff. As a result of the fouls, the Jets, Broncos and Chargers were forced to begin drives at their own 7-, 11-, and 7-yard lines, respectively.
"You got two kicks – you can try and pound it out of the end zone or you can try and hang it up for a little more hang time and make it a returnable ball; but we've got a lot of thanks to our cover guys," kicker Jason Sanders said. "We have a lot of good guys on kickoff, so they've been doing a lot of good work this year and you've got to give props to Crossman, too. Everything we do is a play from Crossman."
Will and desire go a long way in life, in sports, in football and especially on special teams.
"Special teams is more of a decision than offense or defense," Dolphins wide receiver Mack 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."
"I think it's just we enjoy playing together and going out there and having fun," Dolphins wide receiver Jakeem Grant said. "We know that special teams is a big part of the game and special teams can win or lose us the game, and we want to be great on every phase. We go out there – whether it's punt return, kick return, kickoff, punt – and we go out there and we want to pin those guys in or we want to flip the field."
To uncover the true emphasis the Dolphins place on the game's third phase, look no further than the 2020 NFL Draft. As the 2018 David Binn Award winner, Blake Ferguson was college football's most decorated long snapper, leading to a sixth-round selection for Ferguson.
Since Ferguson's arrival, the Dolphins have had successful attempts on a combined 51-of-52 field goals and extra points (98.1 pct.). There hasn't been a muffed snap or a blocked punt through the first 11 games. Still, Ferguson thinks he can perform even better.
"Me being a perfectionist, that happens just about every other snap," he jokingly said about the frequency of snaps he's unhappy with. "I've been very happy with my performance this year. My field goal snaps I've been really pleased with. My punt snaps and protection are good and acceptable as well."
Nobody lets Ferguson know about areas of potential growth more than Crossman. Though mild-mannered in his media availabilities, Crossman's practice voice can be heard on the other side of campus.
"About 30 minutes ago," Ferguson joked about the last time he was chewed out by Crossman. "Being a rookie long snapper in his room, that happens just about every day. Fortunately my brother (Bills long snapper Reid Ferguson) played with him for three years in Buffalo so he was able to give me a heads up to some of the intricacies and quirks Danny might have. But he's a great coach. His style is just one that a lot of people find intriguing."
Linebacker Sam Eguavoen has been unsuccessful in avoiding the wrath of Crossman's dissatisfaction on the practice field.
"Blake said 30 minutes ago? So I'll say about 45 minutes ago," Eguavoen said with a laugh about his last earful from coach. "That's my guy. Crossman's my guy."
Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award
Dolphins linebacker Kyle Van Noy was announced Thursday as the Dolphins nominee for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, which is presented annually to one NFL player for his outstanding sportsmanship on the field. The award was created in 2014 and named for Steelers' founder, Art Rooney Sr.
"Art Rooney is an iconic figure in NFL history," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the time the award was introduced. "It is appropriate that we honor his legacy in this way and recognize NFL players for one of the important values that Mr. Rooney represented so well."
Thursday Injury Report
Running back DeAndre Washington (hamstring) did not practice Thursday.
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (left thumb), wide receiver/running back Malcolm Perry (chest), offensive guard Solomon Kindley (foot) and running back Salvon Ahmed (shoulder) were limited in Miami's Thursday practice.
Defensive tackle Christian Covington, cornerback Tony Brown, long snapper Clark Harris, offensive guard Alex Redmond and safety Brandon Wilson did not practice Thursday.
Defensive tackle Xavier Williams, offensive guard B.J. Finney and wide receiver Mike Thomas were limited participants in Cincinnati's Thursday practice.
For the rest of the Dolphins-Bengals Week 13 injury report, click here.