AP Images/Rick Havner
With New York facing off with the NFC’s leading kickoff returner Jerious Norwood, who boasts a 30.8-yard average, this evening, TGI decided it was the perfect time to take a better look as this critical area.
No, the Giants kickoff coverage team isn’t the worst in the league. It just seems that way. Entering New York’s Monday night clash in Atlanta, only three NFL teams were more generous than Big Blue’s kickoff coverage unit. The Giants were ranked a pathetic 29th in the league, in the process allowing their opponents a 26.5-yard average.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin is well aware of his club’s deficiencies in this key area.
“We just have to do a better job,” Coughlin said. “We have to put people in the right spots, you are continuously doing that. You can do a better job of placing the ball, of hanging the ball up, maybe maneuvering the type of kick that you do. Just continually working with the body presence, the different returns that people use, and where the fits are. A lot of it is getting off the individual blocks, particularly our case from the back side. We have to get off the blocks better than we have. We have been in position but the elimination of the blockers is almost like you are stuck but you are in your spot and the ball is somewhere else; you have to get to the ball.”
Getting to the ball has been a big problem for the Giants. According to Chase Blackburn, one of the unit’s more consistent cover men, there are multiple reasons for New York’s struggles.
“Our speed down the field has been good; it’s just been all at one level,” he explained. “Our kickoff coverage team has been all one speed. When you get everyone running at the exact same level, if there’s even one seam, (the returner is) already through to the safeties.
“People who are wide receivers and skill guys like DBs are supposed to be beating us (linebackers) down there. We need them to pick it up. We just have to keep working at it.”
The speedier cover men’s inability to beat their bulkier peers down the field is the exact reason that the Jets Leon Washington was able to rip off a 98-yard kickoff return for a score on Oct. 7.
“In that one kick in particular we were all in one exact wall,” Blackburn said. “They hit one seam and there was no one to pull it over top because we were all in the same spot.”
During that return, the usually reliable Reggie Torbor got blown up and Reuben Droughns, Gibril Wilson and Lawrence Tynes all missed good opportunities to bring down Washington. In addition to those four, the other seven cover guys on that kick cover unit were Michael Johnson, R.W. McQuarters, Zak DeOssie, Gerris Wilkinson, David Tyree, Blackburn and James Butler.
“We got caught against a real good return unit with the Jets,” Tyree stated. “They had a great scheme and we weren’t fit in the right places.”
The Giants also need to do a better job of getting more people to the returner.
“We just have to get off single blocks and fit the wedge right and squeeze to the ball,” Blackburn said. “We also have to get better at gang-tackling. We’ve had too many tackles this year on kickoff where it’s been just one person instead of five guys.”
Another way the Giants could improve their coverage would be via more touchbacks from Tynes. He’s improved in that department from last year at this point, pointing to New York’s directional kicking tactic as a reason.
“I think I’ve improved a little bit,” he said. “I would say it’s better overall.”
Tyree, who reached the Pro Bowl in 2005 for his superb cover skills, serves as New York’s special teams leader. He said he’s not concerned and believes that improvement is just around the corner.
“Everything’s very simple,” he said. “It’s just playing aggressive and being smart. There’s no secret formula. We’ve got guys that can make the plays and the core guys are there. It’s not like we’re going to start throwing starters out there. Everybody has a job to do. If you’re not a starter we expect the same approach to this job as if you were a starter.”
Tyree is not used to sub-par showings in this department.
“It’s not something that we’re accustomed to since I’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve always had a solid outfit on kickoffs. Our return units have been up and down over the years but our kickoff coverage has always been solid.”
Actually last year, the unit was only middle of the pack, ranking 17th in the NFL with an average return allowed of 22.4 yards.
This year they were victimized by a 46-yard kickoff return by Dallas’ Tyson Thompson on opening night and a 42-yarder by Green Bay’s Tramon Williams in New York’s second defeat. During the recent winning streak there’s been minimal improvement – until Washington ripped through them for the 98-yarder. Washington’s biggest return was ‘only’ a 37-yarder by Rock Cartwright and the Eagles’ top runback came when J.R. Reed went for 26 yards. Against the Jets, however, Gang Green returned five kickoffs for an astounding 40-yard average.
But the Giants can breathe a sigh of relief because their poor performances have not hurt the club in the win-loss column.
“We just have to make plays,” Tynes said. “We know we’ve kind of been the Achilles’ heel for our team. Fortunately we’ve won two games we’ve performed pretty badly in.”
“Right now we’re not helping our football team, but we’re lucky that we’re not helping us lose games,” Tyree added.
The Giants refuse to use youth as an excuse.
“Tyree’s a Pro Bowler; we’ve got some other guys that have done it,” Tynes stated. “Youth is not an excuse. There are no rookies in this league any more.”
“We just have to get our younger guys to step up, be smart about it and make the play,” Tyree said.
Blackburn said the poor results were not from a lack of effort.
“The personnel’s there,” he said. “We have the players to do it; we have the skill and the mindset to do it. The effort and energy has been there. It’s just doing those little things and making the tackle when we get the opportunity.
“We were working after practice at everyone on the kickoff team getting a couple shots at defeating one-on-one blocks in a small space. Then once you beat the guy you have to stack them so you’re in position to draw penalties or so they can’t block you anymore.”
Tynes said the work in progress will eventually bear fruit.
“It’s something we’re addressing,” he said. “Overall as a unit we need to do everything better. We’re disappointed in how we’ve done. But we’ll clean it up.
“The bottom line is that we have to do better in everything – kicking, covering and tackling.”