Could the forgotten phase of the game have a big day?
First a shout out to Corey Giacovelli this week. I often ask the Rumblings team if there are any thoughts/requests on opponent previews as I’m not always 100% in tune with other teams. Corey suggested that the Buffalo Bills might have some opportunities on special teams and man he wasn’t kidding. The Los Angeles Chargers are only 1.2 points per game behind the Buffalo Bills in scoring and a mere 0.8 more points per game allowed. On paper it could be close, and the Chargers seem to have a knack for close games. If a play or two ends up being the difference this weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens on special teams.
I’ll start this week’s opponent preview off a bit differently by telling you how bad things are on special teams by the numbers. That will leave the GIFs to explain some of the “why” components.
- Special teams have been so bad that they demoted special teams coordinator George Stewart after the unit almost cost them the game against the New York Jets. Yes, the Jets.
- Michael Badgley is 76.2% for the year on field goal attempts. That’s 0.2% better than Tyler Bass but Badgley is in year three. He’s 25th in the league.
- Badgley is hitting 92.9% of his extra point attempts, which is 20th in the league.
- The Chargers have the fifth-worst starting field position with drives starting on average at the 26.3-yard line. Their opponents have the third-best position, starting at the 32.6-yard line.
- The Chargers allow an average of 27.9 yards on kick returns (fourth-worst) and 12.7 yards on punt returns (third-worst).
- Andre Roberts averages 29.1 yards on kickoff returns and 11.9 on punts. Both of those are fourth-best in the NFL.
- To compare, Joe Reed averages 22.1 yards on kickoffs for the Chargers (36th) and K.J. Hill averages 7.2 yards on punts (31st).
On paper you couldn’t ask for a much better matchup for the Bills on special teams. Now on to the plays!
The Jaguars are definitely trying harder to block this punt than a lot of teams, bringing eight players into the mix. I’ll cut the Chargers a bit of slack here because ordinarily there’d be fewer blocks to figure out. Cutting a little less slack, they lose several battles with Emeke Egbule (51) missing one entirely. This was the first blocked punt of the season for the Chargers. They currently lead the league with three.
You’ll notice that Egbule isn’t in that spot any longer. Stephen Anderson (#82) does a little better but still loses in the same gap. The Miami Dolphins aren’t trying anywhere near as hard to block this, it’s just a brief mental lapse and we’re onto blocked punt number two.
The Jets also only bring six but Joshua Kelley (27) is beat by the swim move incredibly fast and the blocked punt counter goes to three. So far that’s three individual lapses in blocking assignments from three different players. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for repeatability but let’s wait to reserve judgment.
This punt is also nearly blocked as the center of the formation loses a couple battles. This return doesn’t look special but 19 yards is above league average and cuts out a first down or two for the offense. The problem here seems to occur routinely with the Chargers tending to form clusters of players that reduce the number of lanes they’re covering. Half the unit is slower to the play than the other half, making matters worse. To cap it off, the one player to get downfield quickly flushes the play to the lower part of the screen where the slower players were situated.
Here’s Kelley again getting beat and another near block. Even without the block this isn’t good for Ty Long’s confidence. This 33-yard return was called back thanks to a holding flag but you’ll notice some of the same woes as above.
Fair catch/ What’s the big deal right? The punt was 50 yards in the air. The jammer does next to nothing to slow down the gunner. Had there been even minimal contact at the start of the play there’s a chance of a return. The line drawn at the end of the punt shows the massive difference in how far the Saints’ players made it down the field when there was “some blocking” vs. none.
The GIF software I use isn’t perfect for measuring time so take this with a grain of salt. The ~4.0 second mark wouldn’t be great. I compared this one to a couple similar kicks from other teams and this seemed a touch shorter, aka less hangtime. Not dramatically though so that’s only part of the problem with kickoffs. Against the Saints, the Chargers seemed to start jogging around the 30-yard line. This did seem better in later games, running to the play harder. However, the tendency to find a block rather than trying to beat a block still allowed gaps in coverage. There’s also a bit of clumping here as well.
Here’s the flip side of a kickoff return. There are a couple players who don’t find a block at all. Several who get there late or at a bad angle. And no one gives the impression of a cohesive unit. Compare this to the Saints above. Where New Orleans all turn to block in their lane at a set depth, Los Angeles seems to be scattershot.
There’s a perfect storm of factors that create the overall bad numbers for the Los Angeles Chargers’ special teams unit. Individual performances had led to a lot of bad results like the blocked punts and a good many plays that were blown up in other ways. Consistent issues like lane integrity, blocking technique, and strategy flaws do seem to be on the coaching staff.
Will the past week with new leadership be enough to start turning this group around? Possibly. Some of the basics should be able to be reinforced and quickly applied. The individual lapses and overall lack of speed can’t be coached away in a week. Fingers crossed for a big day from Andre Roberts and the Bills’ special teams.