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News » Special teams analysis

Special teams analysis

Special teams analysis
If you've played fantasy football long enough, you've both praised and cursed special teams. Fantasy owners often spend hours fretting over their running backs, wide receivers, and other starters, but they rarely give even a brief thought to special teams. Kick and punt returners can make an impact in fantasy football leagues. Sometimes it's as a component of the team defense, and other times individual running backs or receivers pile up extra points via their return roles.

Each week during the regular season, we'll look at the matchups ahead and discuss the prospects of the kick and punt returners.

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals

Pro Bowler Josh Cribbs has been uninspiring in his return from a sprained ankle, and head coach Romeo Crennel admitted this week that the specialist isn't "where he was last year." The Bengals coverage teams consistently do a nice job, although they did allow an 85-yard kickoff return to Cribbs last season. Fantasy owners shouldn't count on Cribbs and the Browns return units until they show more spark.

Kick returner Glenn Holt had a quiet Week 3 after showing a spark in the opening two games. He should get ample chances again this week, as Phil Dawson owns only one touchback thus far. The usually-boring Antonio Chatman has posted punt returns of 34 and 21 yards the last two games. The Bengals might be able to find an edge here, although there's not enough upside for us to recommend their defense/special teams.

Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars

We have to believe Jaguars special teams coach Joe DeCamillis called an extra session this week. When last the Jags and Texans met, Andre Davis returned two kickoffs for touchdowns (97, 104 yards). The Jaguars haven't allowed a kickoff return of longer than 25 yards this season, so they seem better prepared this time around. We always view Davis as an asset on kick returns, and Jacoby Jones piqued our interest with a 33-yard punt return last Sunday.

The Colts managed to bottle return man Brian Witherspoon last week, so maybe the word is spreading about the speedster. If Witherspoon breaks through this Sunday, it will be on kickoffs. Kris Brown rarely manages a touchback. On the flip side, Matt Turk and the punt unit are doing a fine job of limiting returns this season. Maurice Jones-Drew has also been getting involved in the return game, but he has a bum ankle and will probably leave all the duties to Witherspoon this week.

Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers

Panthers kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd leads the NFL in touchback percentage (42.9), but the good news is that the coverage unit is allowing nearly 26 yards per return when the opposition doesn't take a knee. Jerious Norwood is off to a mild start on kickoff returns, but this could be a good week for him to break out. He had a 46-yard effort against the Panthers last year. Punt returner Adam Jennings has posted gains of 37 and 18 yards the last two games and had a 23-yard effort in Carolina last season. The Falcons may not have a major advantage here, but signs point to a positive day.

The Panthers are trekking through another "Will he or won't he?" week with returner Ryne Robinson. He hurt his knee on July 31 and claims he is ready to go. We'll see. Given that Jonathan Stewart (foot) has a minor injury, the Panthers may need to dig deeper for kickoff returns. That's too bad, really, as we expect Michael Koenen and the punt team to shut down Mark Jones. The Falcons have allowed a total of 14 return yards over Koenen's 14 punts.

Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs

The Broncos are seemingly on an endless search for an able kick returner, and they've already used three guys this season. Andre Hall sits atop the depth chart, and he'll want to move up this week. Nick Novak has one of the league's shortest legs, yet the Chiefs still allow nearly 24 yards per kickoff return. The Broncos should have good field position throughout this Sunday, but their return game isn't dynamic enough for us to forecast any huge plays.

The Chiefs special teams unit came through when the Broncos visited last year, although it was in the form of a blocked punt which was returned for a touchdown. The Broncos young kickers (Matt Prater, Brett Kern) have been up and down thus far, and Mike Shanahan's team looks vulnerable in these areas. Return specialist B.J. Sams has been quite boring thus far, but he should get plenty of chances this Sunday (at least on kickoffs). We won't be surprised if he generates at least one long return.

San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints

Allen Rossum scored a touchdown in Week 3, but it wasn't in a predictable way. He actually carried the ball at the goal line, a move which surprised even him. The Saints coverage units have been slightly bendable thus far but haven't broken. Rossum should be able to take advantage with an above-average day, but we don't expect anything special.

Much to our pleasure, the Saints kept Reggie Bush on punt returns in Week 3. He didn't bust off a touchdown for the second straight week, but he did scoot for 17 and 13 yards on his efforts. Now, if the Saints could find a dangerous kickoff returner, we'd really be happy. The 49ers have allowed kickoff returns of 42 and 54 yards the last two weeks, and they served up a 30-yard punt return in Week 2. Look for Bush and kick returner Pierre Thomas to make a notable special teams impact this Sunday.

Arizona Cardinals at New York Jets

Steve Breaston has been one of the more disappointing return men thus far, due in part to our lofty expectations. He did manage to finally post a 30-yard kickoff return in Week 3, so maybe he's just warming up. The Jets are carrying two kickers and two punters on their roster due to injury and performance issues. Their punt coverage unit has been especially vulnerable, and Breaston could find some gaps there.

After a couple quiet weeks, Leon Washington ripped off a 94-yard kickoff return against the Chargers. Sadly, he was brought down at the five-yard line. Jerricho Cotchery also managed a 54-yard kickoff return against the Bolts, and the Cardinals better be wary this Sunday. The good news for the visiting club is that punter Dirk Johnson has allowed only one return over his 10 punts. Washington will need to make his impact on kickoffs.

Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

If you're looking for an exciting kickoff return, this isn't the game to watch. The Packers are up to 120 games without a kickoff return score, and everyone knows the Bucs history. The Bucs recent coverage units are as good as the NFL has to offer, and we don't envision much room for Will Blackmon or (possibly) Jordy Nelson this Sunday.

Rookie Dexter Jackson twice tripped over his own feet against the Bears in Week 3. Jon Gruden was so pleased that he called on Michael Clayton (kickoffs) and Ike Hilliard (punts) to replace Jackson. The promising rookie will regain his roles this week, but it doesn't look like Jackson's considerable skills are translating well to the NFL right now. The Packers have covered their kicks well thus far, and we don't see much potential for the Bucs here.

Minnesota Vikings at Tennessee Titans

Jeff Fisher can't be pleased. The Titans kickoff coverage has been shady (28.4 average), and they've allowed punt returns of 29, 34, and 33 yards in Weeks 1-3, respectively. As some mixing and matching, the Vikings seem to have settled on Chester Taylor (kickoffs) and Aundrae Allison (punts) for returns, even though Maurice Hicks is now healthy. We wish the Purple had showed more stability to this point, as the Titans coverage units are clearly struggling.

Take the above paragraph and reverse the team names. The Vikings coverage teams aren't quite as bad as the Titans, but the punt squad has served up returns of 76, 25 and 19 yards in consecutive weeks. Return man Chris Carr is about as exciting as an hour-long trip to the grocery store. We don't expect Carr to puncture the vulnerable Vikings units because, well, that's not what he does.

San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders

The Bolts beat the Jets by 21 points in Week 3, but they lost the battle of special teams. Not that they probably care too much. The Jets managed to hold down Darren Sproles, partially by trying an onside kick. Sproles managed a 61-yard kickoff return in Oakland last year, and that's where he'll need to make his mark this Sunday. Shane Lechler is sharp enough on punts to likely limit Sproles in that area.

The Jets posted kickoff returns of 45, 54 and 94 yards against the Chargers last week, and Norv Turner's club now needs to contend with Johnnie Lee Higgins. That may not be a household name, but Higgins has notched kickoff returns of 58, 42 and 69 yards thus far. He is bound to find the end zone sooner or later, and this may be the week. If nothing else, the lopsided matchup may give Higgins about seven shots to return kickoffs. He is also dangerous on punt returns, but Mike Scifres and his unit have done an excellent job thus far.

Buffalo Bills at St. Louis Rams

The Bills will be without punt returner Roscoe Parrish (thumb) for the next month or so, and that's a huge blow to their special teams. We've seen Fred Jackson, Josh Reed, and Leodis McKelvin offered as replacement options. McKelvin has already pushed aside Terrence McGee as the kick returner, and he brings a ton of potential to the role. The Rams aren't doing much right these days, including their coverage units (especially punts). McKelvin may make people forget about Parrish, for one week.

Dante Hall is coming off a solid Week 3, and the Bills would be wise not to underestimate the specialist. Dick Jauron's coverage units rank 27th on kickoffs (27.2) and 26th on punts (12.6). Johnnie Lee Higgins torched them on kickoffs last week, and six of the nine punt returns against the Bills have been for 15 or more yards. The Rams badly need a spark (or five), and Hall could provide one this Sunday.

Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys

The Redskins talked about giving Santana Moss some chances on punt returns, but that didn't come about in Week 3. Antwaan Randle El seems to have lost his special teams mojo about two years ago. Kick returner Rock Cartwright consistently hits doubles but doesn't seem to have much home run power. In other words, we don't expect the Redskins return units to have much success against the Cowboys decent coverage units.

Rookie punter Durant Brooks isn't on Jim Zorn's "nice" list, but he did perform better in Week 3. We'd like to see Adam Jones take advantage of a Brooks mistake, but the Cowboys return man has piled up a mere 32 yards on eight punt returns. He hasn't even created enough rain to properly water one plant. Felix Jones ranks second in the NFL in kickoff return average (35.1), and fantasy owners should see him as a big-time threat anytime he touches the ball. The Redskins have covered kicks well, but they haven't faced anyone as dangerous as Felix.

Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears

As usual, the Bears coverage units are doing their jobs. They haven't faced great competition thus far, but we doubt they'll have a tough time tracking down Quintin Demps and DeSean Jackson. The rookie receiver is excelling on offense, but he has been very quiet on special teams since posting a 60-yard punt return in Week 1. Brad Maynard will likely punt high and short in order to keep Jackson in check.

The Bears are calling Devin Hester (ribs) a game-time decision, even though he has practiced on a limited basis. We all know what he brings to the special teams table. The Eagles were burned by Felix Jones for a touchdown in Week 2, but they've otherwise done a good job on kickoffs. Punter Save Rocca leads the NFL in net average (44.1), thanks in part to his strong leg and in part to excellent coverage. If Hester and Bears find any holes, it will likely be on kickoffs.

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

Return man Yamon Figurs (hamstring) didn't play in Week 3 and may not be able to go on Monday night. Jim Leonhard played the role of more-than-capable fill-in against the Browns, but we don't expect him to find much room this week. The Steelers were worried about their coverage units coming into the year, but they've already successfully limited Andre Davis, Josh Cribbs, and DeSean Jackson. We like Figurs and Leonhard, but they are unlikely to find holes where those return men failed.

Willie Parker's knee injury also impacts the special teams. Rashard Mendenhall has handled most of the kickoff returns, but he is now the starting running back. The early word is that Mewelde Moore will perform both the punt and kickoff duties. We reply with a huge yawn. The Steelers have provided very little on return thus far, and Moore isn't an exciting answer.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: September 30, 2008

Todd Johnson Name: Todd Johnson
Position: S
Age: 29
Experience: 6 years
College: Florida
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