As Sunday’s NFC Championship Game looms, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson is busy trying to clean up every little thing he possibly can before his team hosts the Minnesota Vikings.
With two strong defenses, scoring opportunities for either side are expected to come at a premium and any mistake could prove to be costly. A week after practically handing the Atlanta Falcons a touchdown thanks to a special teams turnover, Pederson knows extra attention must be given to the Eagles’ special teams in practice this week.
Against the Falcons, the Eagles turned the ball over on a punt recovery when the football touched Bryan Braman while blocking an Atlanta player on coverage. The Falcons recovered the ball at the Philadelphia 18-yard line for a second chance at scoring after a quick series of downs.
Four plays later, Matt Ryan somehow managed to escape pressure just enough to lob a ball into the hands of running back Devonta Freeman for a touchdown. It gave the Falcons a 10-6 lead at the time, because Eagles kicker Jake Elliott clanged an extra point attempt off the goal post prior to Atlanta’s extended offensive series.
It was a rough sequence for the Eagles, a team that has taken great pride in their special teams play over the years, including this season. With the stakes climbing this weekend, there can be no oversight in preparing the special teams units to perform their duties as best they possibly can, which is why Pederson is meeting with special teams coordinator Dave Flipp a little more frequently this week.
“We’ve seen it now in our case, and we saw it a week ago where punt returns have ended up not so good for the return team,” Pederson said. “It’s just something we’ve just got to keep coaching our players. I talked to Dave again today and yesterday about it, and we’ve just got to make sure we keep talking. We had some young guys on those plays that were exposed for kind of the first time in that situation, and we’ve just got to keep talking to our players and keep coaching them up.”
Ordinarily, Pederson would have very little to be concerned with when it comes to the special teams units. All season long, punter Donnie Jones has been one of the most reliable and consistent players on the roster, and has been rock-solid holding the football for field goals and extra point attempts.
Rookie kicker Jake Elliott knocked off some rookie jitters once he was signed by the team early in the year and has rarely given Eagles fans a reason to be worried when he steps on the field. A missed extra point last weekend was surprising to see and will hardly be a reason for real concern going into the NFC Championship Game. Elliott has made 39 of his 42 extra point attempts this season, and has been 12-of-13 on field goal attempts of at least 40 yards including 5-of-6 from 50 yards, highlighted by his 61-yard try to beat the New York Giants earlier in the season.
The kicking game has not failed the Eagles this season, and it can be considered one of the team’s strengths against the Vikings. Special teams coverage has been fairly reliable as well, with Philadelphia right in the middle of the NFL in average kickoff return yardage and punt return average allowed.
Where the Eagles could use a bit of a boost might come on special teams returns. The Eagles were one of two teams to reach the playoffs with a kickoff return average under 20 yards per return (19.7 ypr; Pittsburgh averaged 19.1 ypr). Punt returns have also rarely led to big gains, although there have been a few along the way. The Eagles are averaging 8.9 yards per return, good for 11th in the NFL. But the punt return game has been more about ball security and playing it safe more often than not.
When the Eagles lost running back and punt return specialist Darren Sproles to a torn ACL in late September, the Eagles brought back Kenjon Barner for a second stint with the team. Barner has broken loose for a 76-yard return, but has largely been given little opportunity to create a game-changing play on special teams with 15 fair catches and minimal returns. Barner even recognizes he may have been a bit more aggressive on punt returns than he should have been at times.
“That’s been my problem of late. I’ve been overly aggressive catching balls I normally wouldn’t catch,” Barner said. “With conditions what they are now, with the wind and the weather, there is a lot of movement to the ball. You definitely have to be smart. You definitely have to take into consideration all of the elements that are out there, where the ball is, what part of the field that you’re on. You can be aggressive, but you have to be smart.”
It’s one thing for Barner being smart on punt return duty. It is another to make sure the communication is operating smoothly between Barner and his teammates in the event he chooses to let a ball go. This was the problem last week when Barner was motioning to his teammates to stay away from the football as it was punted his way. But in the heat of the moment and with teammates engaged in blocking downfield, the verbal communication may not have traveled quickly enough to avoid a disaster. It was a rare special teams mistake by the Eagles that cost them in the short term.
Winning the game against Atlanta helped overcome that minor setback, but it can be such a mistake against a team which plays defense as well as the Vikings that could lead to a catastrophic sequence of events for the Eagles this weekend.
No aspect of the game execution can be overlooked this week with the Eagles and Vikings each one win away from playing in the Super Bowl. The focus always tends to be on the offense and the defense until the special teams play costs a team a game. It’s too late in the season to allow for that to happen.