Special Teams Are Killing the Eagles

Five of the Eagles’ six games so far have been decided by a field goal or less.

It’s really an amazing number when you think about it. That’s why you’ll hear many argue that the Eagles could very well be a 1-5 team right now, while others make the case that they’re only a handful of plays away from 5-1.

The truth is, both parties are right. But the Eagles are 3-3 after six, and given all the bounces, calls, etc., that’s probably just about where they should be.

Given the way the offense has struggled, it’s likely that they are going to play a lot more close games the rest of the way.

And that’s why it’s time to start paying more attention to how special teams are simply killing the Eagles. The Birds are not coming close to winning the field-position battle on a week-to-week basis.

Let’s start with the return units because this is where the Eagles made changes in the offseason. DeSean Jackson, who was ineffective as a punt returner last year, was replaced by Damaris Johnson. Johnson was inactive last week, and Mardy Gilyard combined with Jackson to take over.

Dion Lewis, who was ineffective as a kick returner in 2011, was replaced by fourth-round pick Brandon Boykin.

Through six games, the results on both fronts are ugly.

On kickoffs, the Eagles are averaging 20.8 yards per return. That’s 26th in the league and no improvement at all from last year when they averaged 20.9 yards. Their long, which came last week against the Lions, is 31 yards. The Eagles are the only team in the NFL without one return of at least 35 yards in the past two seasons.

As for punt returns, the Eagles are one of two teams that have not had a return longer than 13 yards. Football Outsiders ranks the Eagles’ punt-return unit 29th in the league.

And then there are the coverage teams. The Eagles are giving up 12.4 yards per punt return, sixth-worst in the league. They started the season with Chas Henry and then moved on to Mat McBriar. Overall, the Eagles’ punt/punt coverage unit ranks 28th, per Football Outsiders.

The kickoff coverage unit has been bad as well. The Eagles are allowing 28.3 yards per return, fifth-worst.

All of these numbers translate to poor field position – both on offense and defense. Offensively, the Eagles are averaging 17.2 points per game, second-worst in the NFL. While turnovers are killing them (17, second-most in the league), field position isn’t helping. According to Football Outsiders, the offense’s average starting field position is its own 23.47-yard-line. That’s fourth-worst in the NFL.

Defensively, the Eagles are allowing 20.8 points per game, which ranks 13th. But that doesn’t tell the whole story when you consider that opponents are starting drives at their own 31.58 yard line, the second-worst mark in the league. To be fair, turnovers are a big factor here too, but the as the numbers above indicate, the coverage units are not getting the job done either.

According to Football Outsiders’ rankings, Bobby April’s unit ranked 12th in 2010 and 17th in 2011. This year, the Eagles are 27th. That’s not a good trend.

You can blame April. Or you can blame Andy Reid and Howie Roseman for the roster. To be honest, I’d have to do a little more research to figure out which side of the fence I’m on, and the reality is both parties are probably responsible.

But when discussing areas that need major improvement in the final 10 games, it’s clear that special teams has to be near the top of the list.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

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  • You can also look to Buffalo, April’s last pitstop. He didn’t have that wow guy, but their unites played much better and still do with April. They are ranked 7th in NFL as a unit. Since April has been here, he’s been very ineffective. Problem is changing special teams coach midseason won’t happen and this move would have to be made at years end, which I think it will

  • Darby Township Eagle

    Sheil, thanks for responding to my request to write about this. The Special Teams seem to reflect the poor play on the Offense and Defense. The Offense doesn’t block and neither do the stiffs on the Return teams. I live in Chicago and the same “knock your block off + strip the ball out” style of tackling you see from the Bears’ Defense, you also see on their kick coverage teams. Can’t believe that Bobby April survived the “housecleaning”. You can change kickers, but if nobody’s blocking and nobody’s tackling until 30 yards later, what’s the point? If they can’t punt the coach (April), maybe they need to find a “special assistant” or “quality control” guy to put in some extra work with those units. I think they have athletes with talent. But I question their discipline…and their heart. And that’s where a coach should make a difference.

    • I think the only reason April is still here, is it’s incredibly hard to find a good special teams coach midseason. I think Eagles find his replacement after season tho

  • JofreyRice

    I think it’s fair to blame April. Every NFL squad’s Special Teams are comprised of the bottom of the roster guys, fighting for spots, and looking to make an impression. Though I’ve had my problems with some of the choices Roseman & Reid have made in building the roster, besides a piece here and there, none of the other 31 teams go out and “build” a ST group. It’s up to the coaches to make what pieces they have work. If it were just the lack of returns, it would be one thing, but the guys we have can’t even cover kicks.

  • Mostel

    Bobby April has run AWESOME special teams units everywhere he’s coached. The problem lies with Andy and Howie cutting all of the good depth players that can play special teams. Why isn’t Tracy White here? Keenan Clayton? The list goes on and on. How can you blame Bobby April when he has to coach special teams units employing Jamar Chaney and Brian Rolle?
    Figure it out Sheil!

    • Except in Philly his were good. He didn’t have much in Buffalo and they ranked near top and still do without him there and with mediocre players, just like Eagles. Just the ST have been pretty bad since he’s been here

  • den

    1. Get a 2nd kicker that always puts the ball out of the endzone. Saves 12 huge yards at the cost of cutting a 3rd string lineman
    2. Have Jackson return all punts. What are you saving him for. There has not been a punt returner knocked out of an NFL game in years have him fair catch more and pick his spots. Also do not let a returner to be behind the 10 yd line and if he has to go backword… let the ball go 90% will go into the endzone.
    3. Groom better special team players on the practice sqaud that you can use to replace guys not getting the job done with. Until you build it… use a couple starters… got to win now… any lose to a nfc team from here out can cost a playoff shot

  • Myke Lowery

    maybe if there was more incentive.. or a program that would pay them for tackles.. maybe a performance based plan.. .hmmm maybe a umm “bounty” put on the kick returner?

  • thefadd

    The Eagles have a really young roster — do other teams have more veterans on special teams?

  • barry_nic

    The problem with coaching special teams is the athletes that are being put on special teams usually never played them in college. That being said, coaching critical on special teams. When the returner is looking a more than one or two players to beat, even Jackson isn’t going anywhere. The same on return coverage, there is nobody around the returner, so he has 10 yards right off the bat. The athletes in the NFL are all real good, so I blame the coach. Especially when the punt returner is catching the ball within the 5 yardline with no defenders behind him. Athletes are possibly the problem too, but April has not show me a lot.

  • atlvickfan

    I can tell you this: Brandon Boykin was a dynamic returner in college, and kick returner strikes me as the type of position that doesn’t require a very steep learning curve. And we all have seen what D-Jax can do on punt returns in past years. If they are struggling in this system, I’m more inclined to blame coaching than personnel.