Buffalo Bills fans got a nice dose of sentimentality when head coach Chan Gailey brought back Bruce DeHaven as his special teams coordinator. DeHaven coached outstanding special teams units during Buffalo's glory years back in the 1990s, and unfortunately is also tied directly to the team's most famous post-season defeat, which we do not mention on this blog.
It's been pretty bad. The team gave up a lengthy return score to Washington's Brandon Banks last Friday, and then allowed Indy's speedy Devin Moore to average 32 yards per kick return and pick up 49 yards on a punt return right up the middle. But for as much flack as DeHaven has gotten in these parts, Bills players deserve as much, if not more, of the blame. Notes from Indy after the jump.
These, for the interim, can be chalked up to both coach and personnel; DeHaven needs to make sure he's coaching his troops up on the following points.
* Steve Tasker touched on this a little bit during the telecast, but Buffalo's biggest technical issues in covering kicks and punts come in lane responsibilities. In the first quarter alone, I watched Ashton Youboty, Ellis Lankster, Garrison Sanborn (on punt coverage) and Jonathan Stupar leave their lanes to try to make a play, thereby creating lanes for Moore. Particularly with kick coverage, it's a team effort - you've got to stay in your lane, occupy blockers, and force the returner toward your swarming teammates. This was poorly executed several times early.
* Buffalo's tacklers aren't particularly adept, either. Stupar tripped and fell on tackle attempts twice early, and Joique Bell (who also struggles to disengage from blockers) flat-out missed two open tackles as well. Tackling has been a problem for both Buffalo's defense and special teams.
* Leodis McKelvin had a nice kick return going, but an illegal wedge flag was thrown on the Bills. Buffalo had set up two two-man wedges - which is perfectly legal - but the two wedges were too close together, essentially forming an illegal four-man wedge. Again, this is just a mental technical error that needs to be corrected. McKelvin, meanwhile, still struggles to break tackles, as he was handled with ease on an open-field tackle by Pat McAfee, of all people.
* Donald Jones has looked good in both contests on punt block attempts, and the stars aligned for him to get a big one against Indy. Many of you who watched the local telecast will recall Jones flailing wildly at the punt, missing, and then being treated to the synchronized-diving lesson in proper punt-blocking technique from Tasker and Ray Bentley. Once again, that's a technical issue that needs to be instilled into DeHaven's players.
* Naaman Roosevelt needs to learn to not run backwards on a punt return. I like the kid a lot, and think he's got slot receiver potential, but he's trying too hard to make things happen. He needs to let the game come to him. The same goes for all of the guys blowing contain and diving wildly about on special teams - in many cases, it seems like an over-eagerness to make a play leads to technical breakdowns and mental gaffes.
On Joique Bell
Joique Bell has been the biggest offensive star for the Bills through two pre-season games. He's run for 142 yards at 8.9 yards per carry, and already has two scores under his belt. He's added three receptions for 15 yards, as well. But let's face it - if any NFL team is going four-deep at running back, that fourth guy had better be able to contribute on special teams, whether it be as a return man or in coverage units. Bell isn't a return man, and he has struggled mightily as a specialist.
In Washington, he ran onto the field late on the play that eventually became Banks' return score. He arrived on the field late against Indy, as well; coaches won't like these mental lapses. Bell is also arguably the worst tackler on the team, missing two easy tackles in the first quarter alone Thursday night. He's tough and he hustles, but he can't get off blocks, and even when he goes unblocked, he hasn't been able to consistently make the play.
In fairness, Bell hasn't had to play special teams in a while. A star at Wayne State all four years he was there (he ran for over 2,000 yards as a freshman and as a senior), and star players don't play special teams. It's likely that Bell didn't have to do much of it in high school, either, so there's a very good reason Bell looks totally out of his element. Based on his offensive performance alone, Bell is worthy of a roster spot, but I'll guarantee that Buffalo's coaches will hem and haw over the decision based solely on his special teams struggles. By no means is this kid a lock, even as dominant as he's been as a runner.