Here is the thing about special teams — you want them to do no harm. You don’t want them in the news. You don’t want to hear about them.
You don’t want a game’s outcome determined by special teams. You want to win based on your offense and defense, not the quirky special teams.
In this week’s coaches’ critique — where we look at the performance of Eagles’ coaches, good and bad — we look at the lackluster performance of special teams coordinator Michael Clay’s unit.
The end result was an Eagles’ 40-33 victory over Green Bay on Sunday. Along the way, Clay’s special teams helped the Packers more than the Eagles.
Special teams have been a nagging problem all season. Each game, it seems, there is a special teams error. On a 10-1 Eagles team with the fourth-ranked offense and the second-ranked defense, the special teams are the glaring weakness, noticed by everyone.
Covering kickoffs has become an adventure for the Eagles, often with a poor outcome.
The Eagles are ranked 31st in kickoff return yardage at 27.2 yards per return.
- “We need to be better on kickoff coverage,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “First of all, we are always going to look at ourselves in the mirror first as coaches and say, ‘Did we put them in the best positions to make plays?’
- “Everything that goes on on that field is my responsibility, and it’s my responsibility first.”
Like everyone watching the Eagles, Clay recognizes there is a problem.
- “Obviously giving up three explosive kickoff returns on your kickoff coverage is nothing to be proud about,” Clay said. “It’s unacceptable first of all, for myself as a special teams coordinator for the kickoff coverage.
- “But, again, there have been some good things all around the season. In terms of that game, just some opportunities to make a tackle to probably save it at the 25, 28-yard line where we missed out on.
- “Have to get better getting off blocks, in terms of handling our leverage in those situations. The one coming out of the half they out-leveraged us and it bounced out to the field.”
THE GRUESOME DETAILS
The Eagles had taken a 13-0 lead when Green Bay’s Keisean Nixon returned the kickoff 38 yards to the Packers’ 41-yard line. Green Bay went 59 yards in four plays to cut the lead to 13-7.
OK, you can grudgingly live with one bad kickoff return, but it was the first in a series.
Nixon returned the second-half kickoff 52 yards to set up the Packers at their 47 — the kickoff Clay referenced. Fortunately for the Eagles, the Packers went three-and-out and there was no damage.
The third big kickoff return was with 2:21 to play in the game and the Eagles ahead, 40-30. Nixon returned the kickoff 53 yards to the Packers’ 47. Green Bay moved down to the Eagles’ 15 but settled for a field goal.
- “It could be shuffling guys around,” Sirianni said. “Like I said, I thought Nakobe Dean played a really good game on special teams, so maybe he takes a different role within the special teams. Maybe it is on kickoff, maybe kickoff return, wherever it may be, because he’s doing a nice job.
- “Again, doesn’t have to be just the guys in there. Can be a shuffle and everything is on the table to make sure that we’re doing our jobs to make sure that it gets right. That’s all we care about, is how we get this thing right.”
Getting it right is crucial for a team with ambitious plans. Special teams blunders are like when the relief pitcher comes in and gets knocked around and the lead the starting pitcher had for seven innings is gone.
- “You’re not 10-1 by being lucky,” Clay said. “You’re 10-1 because you play well in all three phases. At times our phases haven’t lived up to the level, and there are times when we have lived up to the level.
- “We’ve got to be consistent going forward the latter part of the season. I think the guys know there could be a special season here in Philadelphia, so it’s one of those things where you don’t want to overreact.
- “You are 10-1. There are probably other teams would love to be in that situation.”