The Bills made a big change on special teams. How did it pay off?
The Buffalo Bills sat some starters against the New Orleans Saints, presumably to either send a message about performance, attempt to tinker with things for a more effective roster, or some combination of both. One of the more obvious changes was the absence of Isaiah McKenzie, who was replaced by rookie Marquez Stevenson as the main punt returner. Let’s check in on how that went.
It’s hard to see everything on returns, even with the All-22 angles, but there’s usually enough to look at what lanes might be available and what primary threats there are to the returner. The Saints have a gunner come free and Marquez Stevenson has run out of time to call for a fair catch—not that I think he would have…or should have. But I wouldn’t blame a returner for it in this situation by any means.
Instead, Marquez takes the ball and has to decide where to take it. In my opinion, while there’s more green to his right it’s fool’s gold and cutting straight ahead is the wisest choice. This return gained 11 yards.
I point out that the decision to call a fair catch or not needs to be made well before the ball is actually caught on this punt. There’s a lot of information to juggle while also looking skyward to track the ball. This is another case where I like the decision to field the ball and run. Stevenson does a little cut to the bottom of the screen then bursts ahead. This return gained ten yards.
Similar to the last return, you’re calculating the trajectory of the ball while also trying to figure out who is being blocked and who isn’t. Stevenson gambles that the two-on-one block to his right will hold off the Saints’ gunner. This turned out to be a bad guess. Had the block held he has a bit of room to gain more than the one yard he had here.
This is a lot like the last return, with a big difference that the block goes a lot better. He’s able to wiggle through some clutter and gain nine. It’s even more impressive, while also being a lot less impressive because…
Return 4 (Broadcast view)
He let the ball hit the turf. It’s a great recovery from a bad start.
It’s hard to find fault with this 18-yard return. So I won’t.
Aside from letting the ball hit the turf it, was a really good premiere for Marquez Stevenson. He doesn’t have enough returns to qualify for comparative-rate statistics. If he did, his 9.8 yards per return would rank fifth. If we did non-qualifiers, he falls in at 18th, for the record. So the sample-size caveat is an important one here. Really this entire paragraph should be taken with a grain of salt.
Using the eye test, I don’t see any glaring issues in decision making for Stevenson. To me it seems he’s trusting his teammates to block for him, and against the Saints they did a reasonable job of it. When presented with multiple potential lanes, I liked the choices he made. Stevenson also showed a little potential in cutting through traffic to find a few extra yards. Again, the small sample size means this is an opinion that should be considered fluid. And we can’t ignore that ball hitting the ground either.
For the sake of comparison, Isaiah McKenzie is averaging 8.7 yards per return, ninth-best out of 20 players who qualify. There are only four players averaging more than ten yards per return, which is a good cut off for the elite tier. Will Stevenson push the Bills to that level? If so, the swap would be a boon.