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Special Teams Mishaps Hurt the Broncos in the Jacksonville Game, But What Has to Change?

Glaring.  You couldn't miss it.  Totally Obvious.

The special teams play of the Denver Broncos, that is, and just how much they struggled last Sunday against Jacksonville.  Not only did they not help, but they produced results that hindered the Broncos, keeping them backed up in their own territory and allowing Jacksonville to capitalize on short fields.  And if you really want scary, check and see what was between the Jaguars and two easy special teams touchdowns:  one bronco, the same one both times.

But we will get to him in a minute.

One thing I have personally struggled with during the regime change, is absorbing fully what McDaniel's is saying about special teams, and following through on that in my own game analysis.  In case you have forgotten, he says that special teams is a third of the game, and equal in value to the other two thirds, offense and defense.  He says it is vitally important.  I get that.  I believe him and agree.  But come game time, and even after the game when I have the freedom to focus on whatever I desire, special teams just seems to sort of...take a backseat in my mind.  And I don't think I am alone.

The upshot of this is that in the games aftermath, something that was so totally explicit to everyone came under the most vague form of blame.  Matthew Willis got picked out of the crowd.  So did he struggle on special teams that day?  Lanes got labelled with lament, but just how crossed and undisciplined were they?  Preifer's coaching came under scrutiny.  But what exactly should he be fired for? The answers are surprising.

Lets start getting specific.

Let's get to know this forgotten third, and let's try to understand just what mistakes they are even capable of, let alone which ones they actually made.  Join me after the jump and lets see if we can find better ways to advocate for meaningful changes and adjustments.

Who the heck are these guys?

We all know Willis  screwed up a play, but what about Cassius VaughnEric Decker? Gronkowski? Batiste?  Were these guys even on the field for special teams?

Let's get to know our STs units.

Kick Return Unit
(for detailed breakdowns of every position's purpose, check out Kirk's two flagship articles on special teams.)

Primary Returner: #32 Perrish Cox
Lead Blocker:   #46 Spencer Larsen
2-man wedge:  #57 Mario Haggan, #67 D'anthony Batiste
wedge flankers:  #79 Marcus Thomas, #87 Eric Decker
Downfield blockers (Upbacks)
Wings:  #12 Matthew Willis, #41 Cassius Vaughn
Guards:  #59 Wesley Woodyard, #51 Joe Mays
Center:  #30 David Bruton

Punt Return Unit
(the roles of the upbacks sometimes change)

Primary Returner:  #32 Perrish Cox
Gunners(blockers): #30 David Bruton, #12 Matthew Willis, #41 Cassius Vaughn, #51 Joe Mays
Downfield Blockers (Upbacks)
Wings: #87 Eric Decker, #94 Jarvis Moss
Guards:  #57 Mario Haggan, #46 Spencer Larsen, #59 Wesley Woodyard, #56 Robert Ayers

Kick Coverage Unit

Kicker: #5 Matt Prater
L1/R1:  #33 Nate Jones, #32 Perrish Cox
L2/R2:  #30 David Bruton, #12 Matthew Willis
L3/R3:  #87 Eric Decker, #94 Jarvis Moss
L4/R4:  #46 Spencer Larsen, #51 Joe Mays
L5/R5:  #41 Cassius Vaughn, #59 Wesley Woodyard

Punt Coverage Unit

Punter: #4 Briton Colquit
Longsnapper: #66 Lonnie Paxton
Personal Protector: #30 David Bruton
Gunners: #32 Perrish Cox, #33 Nate Jones
Wings: #87 Eric Decker, #56 Robert Ayers
Tackles: #51 Joe Mays, #81 Richard Quinn
Guards: #46 Spencer Larsen, #59 Wesley Woodyard


So How Did They Do?

1)J.Scobee kicks 67 yards from JAX 30 to DEN 3. P.Cox to DEN 21 for 18 yards
Kickoff Return Unit

This was the opening kickoff and was easily bottled up.  Of note is that Jacksonville was flying around on Special Teams for the most part of the day.  They were pretty pumped up.

  • Cox did as well as could be expected, since he couldn't go right, left or up the middle.  The problem lies elsewhere. +
  • Bruton pancakes his guy, knocking him on his butt.  Great block. ++
  • Willis stays on his man all the way downfield, effectively sealing him out of the play. Great block. ++
  • Cassius Vaughn bounces his guy out of the play.  Good block. +
  • Wesley Woodyard falls down, fails to get a block in.  X
  • Joe Mays completely whiffs on his block, and chases his man all the way down the field. XX
  • Larsen picks up Woodyard's block on the right side, and seals him out of the play from his lead blocker position. Good block. +
  • Haggan and Batiste do a good job of sealing out the middle rushers, creating a traffic gob in the middle.  Good blocks. +, +
  • Marcus Thomas gets into his block off-wedge.  Overall a good block, but Thomas fails to sustain it. X
  • Eric Decker picks up the wrong pursuer.  The outside guy will be out of the play, even though he would normally be Eric's guy.  Closing fast is Mays' missed block, which would have been the proper pickup. XX

Conclusion:  While Woodyard's trip and fall didn't help matters, Larsen was on the right-hand side to clean it up.  Unfortunately, Mays' missed block wasn't likewise picked up, and that was the player that knifed in on the left to tackle Cox.  Thomas' unsustained block turned loose the rusher who helped clean up the tackle, but the play was pretty much dead at that point.

2)(10:31) B.Colquitt punts 28 yards to JAX 8, Center-L.Paxton, fair catch by R.Mathis

3)(7:31) A.Podlesh punts 56 yards to DEN 7, Center-J.Cain, out of bounds.

4)(5:24) B.Colquitt punts 51 yards to JAX 22, Center-L.Paxton. M.Thomas to JAX 26 for 4 yards (W.Woodyard).
Punt Coverage Unit

  • Woodyard is the first player down the field and makes a solid solo tackle. ++

Conclusion:  Pretty simple, Woodyard grabbed the bull by the horns and made a great play.  Punt coverage usually comes down to whichever player making it off the line also being able to finish the play.  Woodyard definitely showed that tripping and falling was the abberation for him (but we already knew that...)

5)(1:55) A.Podlesh punts 33 yards to DEN 4, Center-J.Cain, downed by JAX-M.Owens
Punt Return Unit (special)

This was the punt that Jax downed inside the 5 yard line, and what was special about it, was it was a very short punt that Denver put the "Hands" team out for.  Players like Goodman, Champ, Jones, Gaffney etc replaced the normal blockers, and Royal replaced Cox.  Royal did a nifty thing by calling for the fair catch and getting out at the last moment to help confuse the Jax defenders, and it almost worked.  Great play by the Jaguars.

6)(4:59) A.Podlesh punts 30 yards to DEN 27, Center-J.Cain, fair catch by P.Cox.

7)(4:16) B.Colquitt punts 46 yards to JAX 33, Center-L.Paxton. M.Thomas to DEN 34 for 33 yards (L.Paxton). PENALTY on JAX-R.Allen, Illegal Block Above the Waist, 10 yards, enforced at 50.
Punt Coverage Unit

Ahh, here we go, the first long return for the Jags.

  • Colquitt gets off a pretty good punt with decent hangtime. +
  • Cassius vaughn is the first guy down the field, but at the last moment he lowers his head to make a tackle and Thomas blows by him.  Bad tackle. XX
  • Cox is approaching from the near side but takes an awful angle and is quickly left behind. XX
  • Bruton gets laid out by a blocker. X
  • Richard Quinn gets laid out by a blocker. X
  • Joe Mays is next on scene and he also takes a terrible angle.  They all underestimated the speed that the returner got to the edge with. X
  • Right about this moment the play has picked up the majority of its yardage as it crosses the fifty.  Guys like Decker, Woodyard and Ayers are squeezing the play back to the sideline, while Larsen flies in on his stomach like a cruise missle, having been blocked in the back. These guys are getting the situation under control. +
  • Colquitt and Paxton finish off the sideline squeeze and Paxton brings Thomas down. But the damage has been done. +

Conclusion: While the block in the back reduced the 33 yard return to only 7, it came late in the play, and the Jaguars clearly outplayed the Broncos.  Vaughn was the guy who needed to step up, like Woodyard ont he previous return, but poor tackling form set the returner lose (the mantra of the punt return is that the first guy is the responsibility of the returner: you have to make them miss).  Cox had the next opportunity, and while he maintained contain discipline, his angle to the play underestimated how quickly Thomas was heading for the sideline.  Multiple players made the same mistake.  Also, a couple of guys lost track of the play and as a result got their clocks cleaned by the feisty Jax unit.  A missed opportunity and overall lack of awareness setup the great return, but the backend of the unit did excellent in a safety type of role.

8)J.Scobee kicks 63 yards from JAX 30 to DEN 7. P.Cox to DEN 26 for 19 yards (M.Owens).
Kick Return Unit

Another kick return where one rusher manages to get past two blockers for the tackle...

  • Cox is on the return and though he gets wrapped up early in traffic, he manages to carry a guy for an extra 5 yards or so. ++
  • Woodyard makes a great block, flattening his guy.  ++
  • Bruton manages to stay with his guy, but is out of position to block him all the way down the field.  This is the rusher that makes the first contact on Cox. XX
  • Vaughn, Willis and Mays all round out the upbacks with a solid trio of blocks. +, +, +
  • Larsen, Thomas, and the Batiste-Haggan wedge all do a good job of walling off the incoming defenders, and Thomas is able to help keep the pile moving once Cox got wrapped up. +, +, +, +
  • Eric Decker once again reads the incoming attackers wrong, and completely misses on his block.  He runs right around the guy that Bruton is trying to get to and runs to the outside like he is running a curl route or something.  XX

Conclusion:  Bruton might have been feeling the effects of being flattened the previous coverage play, but regardless, he never quite got his guy blocked out of the play.  Decker once again whiffed on the chance to clean up a block, and seemed oblivious to any of the onrushing attackers.  Without those two blocks, Cox's fate was sealed, but great individual efforts otherwise on the unit.

9)M.Prater kicks 60 yards from DEN 30 to JAX 10. M.Owens to JAX 32 for 22 yards (C.Vaughn).
Kick Coverage Unit

First off, excellent lane discipline from everyone on the first kickoff coverage of the game.  This was the bouncing squib that got taken by the upback.

  • Willis is first down and he breaks down well even with a blocker draped on him, forcing the returner back inside.
  • At this point every Broncos is in position to make a play and they are doing a great job of closing.
  • Vaughn knifes through and gets around the returners legs, while Bruton comes in and cleans it up with a solid tackle.

Conclusion: A great all around effort to close out the half.  Perhaps the kickoff unit isn't the area of concern?  Not so fast...

10)M.Prater kicks 69 yards from DEN 30 to JAX 1. T.Underwood pushed ob at JAX 47 for 46 yards (P.Cox).
Kickoff Coverage Unit

So much for the Kickoff unit having their, erm, stuff, together.

  • First off forgive me this moment of fandom, but Larsen was clearly blocked in the back (again) on this play.  The Broncos have decent contain here, and good lane discipline, and Larsen is slowing down to make the tackle when he gets pushed out past the returner.  That was the exact point when the run broke free.  Oh well...  >:(
  • It just gets ugly from here.  After Larsen's missed tackle, Lance Ball misses, Bruton misses, Vaughn runs into Willis taking them both out and Eric Decker gets pancaked into the ground. X, X, X, XX, X, XX
  • Mays, Moss  and Woodyard make good pursuit, though Woodyard pulls up gimpy and ends up out of the play.  No idea if it affected him long term or not. -, -, -
  • Cox does a great job of taking an angle and prevents Prater from having to get "involved".  cox effectively run Underwood out of bounds despite Tiquan's full head of steam. ++

Conclusion:  You mean besides me griping about the refs?  Well, let's see.  Once again, awareness seems to go out the window once the play breaks, and the usual suspects are found running into eachother and missing tackles.  Cox was full speed this time, maybe because he knew how fast the guy was.  Underwood was the Jag's third string returner, and this is the one thing I might lay at Preifer's feet for the game.  The Broncos seemed ill prepared for Underwood's speed, and that is a coaching/preparation issue.  Even if he is third string...

10)J.Scobee kicks 70 yards from JAX 30 to end zone, Touchback.

11)(7:49) B.Colquitt punts 47 yards to JAX 25, Center-L.Paxton. M.Thomas to JAX 30 for 5 yards (L.Ball).
Punt Coverage Unit

This was a great team effort here.  Bruton, Ayers and Ball all showed great hustle and instantly had the returner coralled.  While Bruton and Ayers broke down, Ball knifed in for the hit and they got it cleaned up quickly.  Great all around effort, probably after hearing the chewing out of the Kick coverage team.

12)M.Prater kicks 76 yards from DEN 30 to JAX -6. T.Underwood to JAX 47 for 53 yards (P.Cox).
Kick Coverage Unit


  • This was the one that everyone caught, Willis flying in with an opportunity to make the play, and then veering off sharply to...take on a block?  Are they taught to do that?  I could see an instance where they are taught to clean out the blocker so that the next guy can make the tackle, but it was way too clear that if Willis doesn't stay on the outside shoulder there, that contain will be lost, big time.  Well, contain was lost...  XX
  • Underwood had a huge head of steam here, and pretty much everyone was out of the play once contain went, but Cox, from the far sideline, slices in and saves a second touchdown.  Tremendous hustle, again.  ++

Conclusion:  Willis was certainly the goat on this one.  It wasn't just that it was a mistake (as I pointed out, sometimes it might be the right move), it was that it was an instance of having to make a critical choice instantly, and he made the wrong choice.  The really wrong choice.  In fact, it almost looks like he thinks the other guy has the ball, as fiercely as he cuts toward him.  Disappointing all around.  Of course, Cox did a fantastic job stopping the TD, and seems to have corrected the angling problem that contirubted to the first lon punt return.

12)J.Scobee kicks 70 yards from JAX 30 to end zone, Touchback.

13)M.Prater kicks 69 yards from DEN 30 to JAX 1. T.Underwood to JAX 17 for 16 yards (S.Larsen; M.Willis).
Kickoff coverage Unit

Overall this was great lane discipline as well.

  • Bruton was the best example of Lane discipline, as he gets down to the ball carrier in the middle and holds his ground, shedding two blocks. ++
  • Bruton's play allowed Larsen and Willis to slice in decisively and shut downt he returner with a big hit.  Many broncos follow. ++. ++

Conclusion:  I like that Willis didn't get tentative after the earlier blunder, and he definitely proved that he gives 100% on special teams.  I really thought Bruton played well to his role as well, as a sort of technical leader of the STs.  but Larsen impressed me the most, and I remember noting during my first viewing that finally one of the STs leaders was making a big statement on the field.

14)J.Scobee kicks 67 yards from JAX 15 to DEN 18. P.Cox to DEN 43 for 25 yards (K.Osgood).
Kick Return unit

A good return with nice moments.

  • Somebody must have fallen down, because Willis is blocking 3 guys on the outside. He does as well as you might expect in this situation, but keeps his feet and buzzes around them.  None of them get involved in the tackle. +
  • Joe Mays pancakes his blocker, and then manages to lay out a second guy once Cox gets teh corner.  Animal. ++
  • The Larsen, Batiste, Thomas, Haggan wedge-and-pony show does an effective job of shutting down the right side pursuit. +
  • Eric Decker finally gets a block read right and helps Vaughn clean up his guy, taking the attacker completely out of the play.
  • Cox showed some nifty moves here, making the first guy miss, stepping out of the diving tackle of the second even as he stumbled.  No stumble and he gets the edge much quicker than he did and a good return becomes a great return. +

Conclusion:  The kick return unit hasn't gotten a lot of opportunities today, and they showed great improvement on their second one.  Cox did a good job creating, and several players showed great awareness once Cox gained the outside edge, helping him tremendously.  It was almost the kind of play that can even the score, and the difference may have been the two unaccounted for players (Bruton and Woodyard most likely).

15)(2:00) A.Podlesh punts 46 yards to DEN 19, Center-J.Cain. P.Cox to DEN 23 for 4 yards (S.Considine).
Punt Return unit

Last special teams play of the afternoon.

  • Vaughn and Willis struggle shutting down their gunner, and the result is that Cox ends up having to dodge all three of them along the sideline. X
  • Cox does a nifty spin move, but he really doesn't have anywhere to maneuver that close to teh edge, and he quickly goes out of bounds for only a short gain.  X

Conclusion:  Willis and Vaughn clearly need to shut down their gunner, but overall the play is sort of a wash.  It was likely that the offense preferred more time on the clock to a lot of back and forth by Cox, and he seemed to sort of mail in the end of the play once it was clear that it wasn't going to be effective.

Overall Assessment

There is a lot here to digest, but looking at it we can certainly see that many of the generalities we were lobbing at the STs simply didn't fit.  Out of 15 STs plays, 10 could be evaluated for effectiveness, and of those ten, 5 could be pointed out to have issues worth addressing.

Eric Decker may have been the worst STer, in terms of mistakes, as he was either a non-factor or actually made a blunder on most of his reps.  This isn't the worst situation in the world, as he is smart and tough, so optimism about his adjustment is viable.  Could there be an issue with him being serious enough about his STs duties?  You tell me.  He doesn't strike me as the type, but sometimes guys just chafe at the idea of a lesser role on the team than they would like.

Willis, many people's dog after the game, was a pleasant surprise for me.  Yes his blunder was cumbersome, but his overall energy levels and effectiveness on the rest of the plays impressed me.  It is clear watching him right now that he is trying to make the most of STs duty, and it is hard to fault a guy putting in that kind of effort.

Cox really impressed me, both with his speed on the returns, but also his awareness to shutdown Underwoods two near-TD returns.  Add in his CB contributions for the day and he is pulling his weight early.

Vaughn was up and down, and definitely showed his current ceiling.  He got pushed around more than Willis, and taken completely out of the play a few times, so maybe his drive and determination isn't what it should be.

The leaders, guys like Bruton, Woodyard and Larsen were in tough spots to actually lead, what with some of their mistakes.  Bruton seemed pretty inconsistent on the day, and I think he was a heat victim early.  Woodyard made some stellar plays, more than making up for a couple of small errors, but still, tough to lead from that place.  Larsen had the best opportunity to make a statement, and I was glad that he did, but it was a bit late to be truly useful.  At least at that point the STs had ceased to be a factor influencing where the game was headed.

But that, I submit, is part of the problem.