Special teams are not dead.
Yes, the changes in the kickoff rules have negated the impact of returns. But field goals and punts are still very viable ways to affect games. We saw that on Sunday as three teams, the Dolphins, Browns and Ravens, all were propelled to victory by big plays. So chalk one up for the special teams coaches, and the players who make a living on the kicking, punting and return units.
“I think it’s still probably the most underrated phase of the game, and it’s nice to see our guys directly affect the outcome of some games,” Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said from his office on Monday. “I think our game is a perfect example of how one big special-teams play can factor into the whole game and kind of turn the game around.”
For the Dolphins and Browns, the plays didn’t happen deep into the game—we’ll get to failures in execution during crunch time by the Packers and 49ers later in this column—but those special-teams plays loomed too large and were too good not to highlight this week.
“Special teams are huge,” Browns tight end Jordan Cameron told The MMQB. “I think people overlook those sometimes. We won that battle yesterday.”
Falcons at Dolphins
Score: Falcons 20, Dolphins 13
Time: 2:00, third quarter
Situation: 4th-and-14 at Miami’s 25
Result: 53-yard punt by Brandon Fields to Harry Douglas, forced fumble by Don Jones, recovered by John Denney at the Atlanta 19
What happened: After halftime, the Dolphins’ offense produced a lost fumble, field goal, interception and a three-and-out. The Falcons, despite only leading by a touchdown, had control of the game. And then Don Jones, a seventh-round pick and reserve safety out of Arkansas State, started down the field to cover a punt. Falcons cornerback Dominique Franks funneled Jones inside to safety Thomas Decoud on what was supposed to be a punt to the right middle of the field. Decoud, with Franks tracking Jones nearby, spun Jones a little bit on a possible hold.
Knowing that he shouldn’t be inside the ball, Jones headed down the field and toward the sideline where Franks and Decoud put Jones in a double-team vice block. Falcons returner Harry Douglas initially waved off his teammates and wasn’t going to field the shorter-than-expected punt, but he picked up the ball when it bounced to him cleanly. On the inside, Dolphins long snapper John Denney and cover players Jelani Jenkins and Chris Clemons forced Douglas to the sideline. Jones got loose of the double team, closed fast on Douglas and then leveled a hit that jarred the ball loose. “Watching it last night for the first time on video, I didn’t realize he was fighting through the double team,” Rizzi said on Monday. “I just thought that he kept persevering through the play. Heck of a job by him. He just knows one speed—full speed all the time. You can see that at the end. He kind of accelerates through Harry Douglas and does what we call ‘bite the ball,’ putting his facemask right on the ball, and was able to jar it loose.” Jones celebrated the hit but wasn’t immediately aware of how big the play actually was. “He didn’t even realize he caused the fumble,” Rizzi said. “I’m going to jump on him today when we watch the film.” Denney should also be commended for recovering the fumble, which two Falcons had a shot at. That hit and fumble recovery woke up SunLife Stadium and the Miami offense. The Dolphins scored a touchdown three plays later to tie the game, setting the stage for their 27-23 upset of the Falcons.