The Buffalo Bills special teams unit has been very strong so far this season. After watching the Bills punt poorly, cover kicks poorly, and carry a kickoff specialist for the better part of the last two seasons, it’s been refreshing to watch the Bills’ special teams perform well over the course of the season. They continued their solid play from quarter one of the season in its second fourth.
Kicking Unit: A-
This group remains around the same. The Bills have been stellar in terms of converting field position into points, as kicker Stephen Hauschka has provided a huge upgrade over Dan Carpenter. “Hausch-money” is 16-for-18 on field goals this season, including 5 makes in 5 attempts of over 50 yards. He’s also handled kickoffs, and it appears that the team is directing him not to kick touchbacks, as he has only hit 21 in 42 kicks. While that may seem like a strong percentage, the total number of touchbacks is only good for 19th in the NFL this season. 18 of Hauschka’s kickoffs have been returned, which is the third-highest number in the league; as a result, the Bills have allowed 400 return yards, which is the league’s fourth-highest total. Even with all of those yards, Football Outsiders has Buffalo at seventh in the league in defensive starting field position, with Buffalo’s opponents averaging a start at the 26.5 yard line.
Punting Unit: A-
I said this unit could be better, and over the last four games, they have been much better. Buffalo had allowed 11 punts to be returned for 81 yards through the season’s first four games; over the last four, they allowed 9 punts to be returned for a total of 31 yards. Colton Schmidt has been fantastic, as his 12 fair-caught punts are good for 7th in the league, and his net average of 41.4 yards per punt shows that he’s hanging punts up high enough for his gunners to do their job. He has already kicked 4 touchbacks, the second-highest total in the league, but 15 of his 41 punts have been placed inside the 20 yard line, which is a solid percentage. The loss of Taiwan Jones, who broke his arm late in Thursday’s loss to the New York Jets, could be bigger than we think, as he has done a nice job covering punts for the Bills this season.
Return Units: C+
Not much to see here. Brandon Tate has been okay, providing some movement with little risk or explosion. He has returned 10 punts for 113 yards this season, and he’s also taken 6 kickoffs for 130 yards total. The coaching staff must have been looking for a spark Thursday, as they chose to deactivate Tate and allow Taiwan Jones to return kicks while Micah Hyde returned punts. Having the NFL’s leader in interceptions return punts doesn’t seem like a wise strategy, so I hope that the Bills stay away from that again in the future. However, it’s clear that head coach Sean McDermott is looking for more out of the return game.
Special Teams Overall: A-
The Bills have done a nice job in the third phase of the game. They haven’t had any negative plays from their special teams, their field goal kicker has been next to automatic, and their punt coverage unit has been a swarming crew, improving each week. Overall, this has been the most consistently solid group throughout the first eight games of the season, and that’s even taking into account Buffalo’s strong defensive performance in 2017.
There have been some head-scratching moves made by the coaching staff with regard to gameday activations, not to mention other lineup questions. It seems that the coaching staff isn’t afraid to go into games shorthanded in the secondary, perhaps due to the versatility of players like Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer; however, they’ve played with fire in an important position a few too many times this season. The continuous shuffle at kick and punt returner suggests an overall discomfort with the spot, but without better options on the roster, it seems foolish to put starters in harm’s way. continuing to put Vlad Ducasse and Jordan Mills out there every day isn’t doing the coaching staff any favors, either. Ryan Groy did a nice job last season, and he’s paid handsomely to be a part-time sixth offensive lineman. Add to that some brutal playcalling at times on offense (Why are we handing Mike Tolbert the ball twice in a row? Why are we throwing Mike Tolbert swing passes? Why is Mike Tolbert the backup running back in the first place?), and this coaching staff had some more down moments through the second quarter of the season. Overall, though, it’s hard to argue with a 5-3 record. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Bills play on the road in the coming weeks, as they’ve been a Jekyll-and-Hyde act in 2017.