A year after ranking below average, the Eagles special teams have been dominant this season having blocked a field goal, blocked two punts for touchdowns, and returned a punt and kick for a TD. The reason for this is quite simple: Chip Kelly’s focus on special teams is well known to Eagles fans, and after special teams struggled last year save for punting, the team made upgrading that area a priority.
Gone are Colt Anderson (most ST snaps last year, 71.0% per Football Outsiders) and Kurt Coleman (3rd most, 60.8%). In their place are free agents Chris Maragos (tied for most ST snaps this year at 81.7%) and Bryan Braman (3rd most, 81.1%), both signed specifically for special teams. Other players were brought in or made the roster because of their abilities on special teams. Such as Nolan Carroll, who Special Teams Coordinator Dave Fipp previously coached in Miami and recommended to the Eagles, Carroll has played the 4th most ST snaps, 51.5%. And Chris Polk, who despite missing basically the entire pre-season made the roster because of his special teams ability. Trey Burton cracked the roster as an undrafted free agent at a position that was three deep in part because of it, in the past three weeks his playing time has increased. Ahead of him on the tight end depth chart is James Casey, who last year played the 2nd most amount of ST snaps (70.7) and is tied for the most this year with 81.7%. The now injured Brad Smith was brought in mid-season last year to improve a struggling squad. And it wasn’t just the backups who were targeted for special teams play, Malcolm Jenkins has the 5th most amount of snaps, 48.5%. And of course Darren Sproles was traded for in large part for his return abilities.
So it’s no coincidence that after making roster moves and roster decisions to specifically address special teams that the Eagles have improved across the board, and in all of those big plays, these players have been the most important cogs. This week they face a punt coverage unit that has had some issues. Can the Eagles block a punt for the third week in a row?
Week One, Monday Night Football. The Giants go three and out on their opening possession, and on their punt the Lions nearly get to punter Steve Weatherford, who looks like a husband who tries to kill his wife in a WE movie.
Lions RB Montell Owens will simply overpower Giants S Quintin Demps on the wing, personal protector Nat Berhe will slide over to protect the middle even though S Isa Abdul-Quddus is not rushing, and Owens will get pretty close to blocking the punt.
On the next punt, the Lions did deflect it.
LB Mark Herzlich, lined up at tackle, will point out S Jerome Couplin, who on this play is a "creeper". He's probably a nice guy in person. Herlizch blocks Owens, leaving LB Tahir Whitehead, who is lined up over top of him, to be blocked by the guard, LB Jamil McClain. Whether because of a lack of communication or just a bad job by McClain, he doesn’t block Whitehead, who goes straight through. Making matters worse, Berhe again slides to the other side of the protection, even though it is not an unbalanced formation. Whitehead has a free release to Weatherford, and gets his hand on the punt and deflects it, resulting in a 16 yard punt.
They were nearly beaten on the outside, and they were beaten on the inside. In fairness, that was the start of the season. In the weeks since, the Giants haven’t had a similar outcome, but they haven’t cleaned up their protection.
On this punt against the Texans, RB Peyton Hillis is now the wing, replacing Demps, who has moved over to personal protector, replacing Berhe. Texans S Eddie Pleasant will just blow right by Hillis, and nearly get his hand on the ball.
Herlzich will again kick to the outside on this punt against the Redskins, and leave the rusher lined over top of him, LB William Compton, to the guard, who on this play is DE Demontre Moore. This leaves DT Frank Kearse to be blocked by LS Zak DeOssie. DeOssie is completely beat by Kearse, and is free to Weatherford, getting pretty close, but not close enough. Not bad for a defensive lineman, but a quicker player would have gotten there sooner.
While the Giants are losing individual battles in punt coverage the Eagles punt return team is winning them. There’s not a lot of creativity going on with the punt return team, they pretty much just line up man to man, and beat them. The Eagles are generally not overloading one side or the other, nor mixing up the number of rushers, just lining up eight men on the line, occasionally dropping two off the line depending on field position, and rushing eight. This is a good sign going forward, it means the coaching staff hasn’t yet had to use many counter adjustments. The players are simply winning their assignments.
They’re winning them on the outside. On Darren Sproles’ punt return TD, Chris Polk beats the wing, FB Bruce Miller and almost gets to punter Andy Lee. Compare this to the Giants punt against the Texans, Chris Polk is quicker (at least, he ran a faster 40) and stronger than Eddie Pleasant.
And they’re winning them on the inside. On the punt block for a TD, James Casey blows right by LS Kyle Neslon, and he and Trey Burton overwhelm the guard, LB Dan Skuta, into Lee. Just brute force winning the play.
This continued against the Rams. Burton is going to fly past the guard, LB Darren Bates, who will block Chris Maragos. James Casey will be left unblocked by LS Jake McQuade, who doubles Braman, and by personal protector Chase Reynolds is in an impossible bind: he can’t block both and whoever is unblocked will get to the punter, which winds up being Casey.
Compare that to the Giants punt against the Redskins. Trey Burton, James Casey and Brian Braman are all quicker than a DT.
To predict a blocked punt is highly specific. The Giants punt coverage team has been shaky because players are getting beat. The Giants personnel changes haven’t really improved things, and they’ve been sticking with the same blocking schemes. Their wingers can be beaten, and the Eagles have gotten pressure against wingers. Their guards and tackles are getting beat by speed and power, and the Eagles have beaten opponents' guards and tackles with speed and power. Don’t be surprised if the Eagles block another punt on Sunday night.