This is the third installment of an analysis of the Buffalo Bills to have a good look at what the 2009 season will bring.
The Bills special teams unit has been the source of pride for the Bills in previous seasons and will have to perform equally well this year for the Bills to be competitive for the division crown.
It is hard to have a discussion about the Bills special teams unit without giving cudos to the best special teams coach in the NFL, Bobby April. But I will discuss April in another installment; this article is for the players.
The Glamour Positions
The positions that receive much of the attention from casual football fans are the return men on special teams units. They are the ones that dazzle and delight as they weave through opposing coverage teams and carve the field up for big yards.
Roscoe Parrish has shown that he is valuable and skilled in his role as punt returner. He only led the league last year and will be returning in that capacity this season.
Parrish has a knack for finding seams in coverage and exploding for big yards. One particular skill that he possesses that sets him apart is his ability to feel where the soft spots are.
Parrish is a big-time punt returner that could break open a game on any punt return.
Bills fans should expect more of the same this year from Parrish with what looks to be a diminished role in the passing game due to the arrival of Terrell Owens. This means fresher legs for Parrish, which should translate to more return yards.
Last season, the Bills' average starting position after a kickoff was past the 32-yard line; that was best in the NFL. The Bills can thank kickoff stud Leodis McKelvin for that.
McKelvin set the Bills team record for kickoff return yards in a season with 1,498 yards. He even set that season mark after teams started purposely kicking away from him in the latter part of the season.
McKelvin's prowess as a kick returner has solidified him as one of the leaders in the NFL at the position and he has the skills to do the same or better this season.
McKelvin runs with strength and with a lack of fear rarely seen in that position; he couples that with incredible burst speed, along with the patience to wait for his blockers to commit on their blocks. He did all this as a rookie and surely will do more this season.
Freddie Jackson showed the Bills fans last year that he is a very capable return man himself. He is a versatile athlete that is fully capable of handling a bigger share of kickoff returns, but McKelvin is simply outstanding, so the Bills will not increase Jackson’s kickoff role unless McKelvin gets injured.
The Coverage Teams
The kickoff and punt coverage teams play a vital role on any football team, though many fans overlook their importance until a failure takes place and the opposing team gets the ball in great field position or worse, they score.
John Wendling and Justin Jenkins were among the most active special team men last year and should be aided by a couple of eager rookies. Wendling ‘kamikaze’ style of flying down the field has gotten him noticed on more than a few big plays.
The Bills picked up some quality players in the draft and there will be some level of shifting, especially in the defensive backfield, so deciding who will emerge as a special team standout is difficult at this point.
Rooky safety, Nic Harris, is reliable tackler that impressed plenty of people with his nose for the ball and electrifying hits on opponents. Harris should more than likely earn a spot on the Bills roster and will be on the special teams unit.
Rooky cornerback, Ellis Lankster, is another newcomer with the potential to make an impact on special teams if he can secure a spot on the team. Lankster, a West Virginia product, is an excellent open-field tackler that plays very aggressively.
The one advantage that anyone on the coverage team has is the coaching of Bobby April. April is a master at teaching special teams techniques.
The Leg Men
The place kicker and the punter are two positions that are usually disliked or even despised by many fans. However, a good, consistent punter is usually the trademark of a good team and on any NFL weekend recap, the last second, game-winning field goal only stresses the importance of having a reliable place kicker.
Ralph Wilson stadium in Orchard Park, New York is known for being the toughest place in the NFL to do anything where the pigskin is in the air for any amount of time.
Why...because the constantly blowing winds off of Lake Erie swirl in the stadium to create an environment that most punters and kickers cannot flourish in. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, there is snow in Buffalo.
Conjuor images of O.J. Simpson weaving through defenders with a solid white field beneath his feet, every breath exhaled forming a two foot cloud in front of him, with coaches and fans on the sidelines bundled with every piece of winter gear imaginable.
That is Buffalo...tough, cold, windy and no place any faint-of-heart, sissy-fied kicker would ever dream of making a living.
Punter Brian Moorman and Kicker Rian Lindell aren’t your typical punter or place kicker.
Moorman has proven himself year after year and his ninth NFL season should be no different. Last year he averaged more that 44 yards per punt, but more importantly he has the ability to place the ball.
Over the last eight seasons, Moorman has averaged 23 balls a year inside the 20-yard line. To put that in layman’s terms, at least once every game he is responsible for pinning the opposition deep in their own territory.
Rian Lindell is going into his 10th NFL season and has never missed an extra point and has a Buffalo career average of nearly 83 percent on field goals. Lindell has done all of this while playing in one of the worst kicking environments in the NFL.
If we compare Lindell’s home stats to his away stats from last year, it is clear to see that it is tough to kick in Buffalo. Lindell was a perfect 20-for-20 when the Bills were away from Buffalo (Rogers Centre in Toronto included).
Lindell is a solid kicker with a strong leg, last year he nailed a 53-yarder in Buffalo, but he did have a less than stellar season last year. He had an average of only 55 percent in Ralph Wilson Stadium last year.
For the Bills to take the next step as a team, Lindell has to improve at home.
Formula For Success
The Bills special teams unit has been one of the best in the NFL for many years, so it will be hard to improve on previous seasons. With that said, the level of performance this year should at least equal last year’s.
The success the special teams can ignite a fire for the Bills in any game and can quickly demoralize opponents. This vital part of the team should have ample opportunity to help the Bills in the hunt for a playoff berth.
Next installment: Coaching staff.