BY Doug Farrar 04:03PM 11/29/2010

Seahawks are special in just one category

Special teams transcend Seattle’s overall inconsistency

Kennard Cox blocks Dustin Colquitt's second-quarter punt, which Earl Thomas returns for a touchdown./Rod Mar, Seattle Seahawks

Some coaches simply don’t value special teams. You saw it in Seattle in the Mike Holmgren era, when the coach would put guys like fullback Heath Evans on kick returns and save his “best guys” for the offense and defense. Creating roster spots for those specialists, beyond the inevitable punter and kicker spots, was generally verboten – why take control of a key aspect of the game when you can gain extra (and possibly never-used) extra depth at blocking tight end or long-snapper?

Seahawks current head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have taken the more proactive approach favored by the Chicago Bears and New York Jets in recent years, realizing that in a league where the margin for error is tighter than ever, any advantage is golden. Since taking over the team, Carroll and Schneider have spent nearly as much time analyzing their return units as anything else, and the results have paid off. On a wildly inconsistent team, the Seahawks’ special teams have been the one near-constant. They currently rank first overall in Football Outsiders’ special teams efficiency rankings, and have done so comfortably through most of the season.

On the day after Seattle’s 42-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Carroll went back and recalled how he and his staff put together units that blocked a punt for a touchdown and a field goal attempt, taking what would have been a 10-0 early swing and turning it into a 7-7 tie.

“We started off with the thought that we had two really solid kickers (kicker Olindo Mare and punter Jon Ryan) we could count on,” he said. “We didn’t know much about the returners, and we wanted to see what could turn up there. You’ll remember that we went out for Sean Morey and Matt McCoy, those guys have been long-time special teams players. We followed up with the chance to get Michael Robinson, who’s been a really complete special teams player. We then called on the young guys and the other guys on this roster that had been effective before – Will Herring had been a terrific player. David Hawthorne had been a really good special teams guy. So, we mixed and matched that. But we did make an effort, and we will continue to make an effort, to find really unique special teams players. Sean was one of the guys to set that in motion, but unfortunately, he couldn’t play.

“Obviously, we were fortunate to get Leon Washington to come in and be a high-profile returner for us. He’s already given us tremendous stuff – every time the ball goes in the air, you think he’s going to pop it and do something with it. I think we’ve spent a pretty good effort on that, and the success we’ve had is a combination of those special players, the experience of the kickers and returner, and the approach of (special teams coordinator) Brian (Schneider) and (special teams assistant) Jeff Ulbricht. They’ve done a fine job of capturing these guys, and they have a great spirit about them.”

Washington has been the X-factor all season; the Chiefs were clearly kicking off short distances to get their return coverage units upfield and handle Washington as quickly as possible. It’s a valid strategy when dealing with a player who already has 926 return yards and two touchdowns in the season, and has broken the 1,000-yard in two previous seasons with the Jets.

“You could see the respect they paid us in terms of kicking the ball to us,” Carroll said after the game. “They tried to play ‘keep-away’ with it. On the other side, we had a big, big block – a perfectly executed (punt) block. The field goal – we have been looking for the field goal block all year, and our guys have been busting their tails to get one. It’s a huge play, and we almost had a chance to scoop that one up, too. So, again, our guys really have done a nice job, and in this game, they gave us a chance to hang. Those are two huge plays that usually win you a football game. Not today.”

Rookie safety Earl Thomas was the man who scored on the Kennard Cox block of Dustin Colquitt’s punt, and Thomas spoke after the game about how crucial prior planning has been in the team’s current performance. “We got a good block, and I was able to scoop it up and score. I was just thinking about scooping and scoring the whole time. We worked hard on that in practice. It was actually called a hook-horn (a spinoff of the ‘Hook-em-Horns’ motto from Thomas’ alma mater of Texas), so they put it in just for me to rush off the edge. We thought I was going to go free, but instead the inside guy (Kennard Cox) came free, and I was able to pick it up.”

Defensive tackle Craig Terrill, whose seven career blocked kicks is just one behind the franchise record of eight set by Joe Nash, agreed that there’s something different about this year’s squad and its capacity for making momentum-changing plays. “Yeah, for sure – we have great guys on our special teams who are really committed to making the most of their special teams reps,” Terrill said. “They’re few and far between, the chances to make big plays – you have to make them happen.

“It’s really the unit as a whole; all the guys who line up there. Lofa Tatupu, Aaron Curry, Raheem Brock – we’re all really committed to going after every kick, whether it’s a PAT or a field goal. It’s something we’ve worked on for a long time and have a mindset about.”

Special teams improvement is an attainable goal for most teams, even the ones rebuilding most drastically. The Seahawks have taken great care to put the right combinations together, and even in a season when the offense and defense are all over the grid, that’s why there’s one thing in this crazy season that Pete Carroll can actually count on.


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