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Do the Buffalo Bills have a special teams problem?

Buffalo will look to improve their special teams play as the postseason approaches

New York Jets v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills have won six games in a row, but have run into a recent string of suspect special teams play. Over the past few games, the Bills have seen a blocked punt for a safety, a missed field goal, a missed extra point, multiple opponent punts that were downed inside the five-yard line, and numerous kickoffs and punts that were returned for good yardage.

The Bills have been solid on special teams all year, but have seen some uncharacteristic mistakes lately. Luckily, these mistakes haven’t cost them a game yet — but come playoff time, any mistake made will be amplified. Let’s analyze some of the recent mistakes made.

Missed tackles on kickoff coverage

In this kickoff coverage, the Bears elect to return the ball to the opposite side of the field from where they field the football. Buffalo has an opportunity to keep this return close to the 25-yard line, but they miss two tackles, which results in the Bears gaining an extra 10 yards on the return.

Another missed tackle, but not from the kicker

Kudos to kicker Tyler Bass, who makes a great tackle on this play — but it’s never a good thing if the kicker is making the tackle. Give the Bears credit here; they blocked this return well. But yet again, the Bills miss a tackle that could have saved them 15 yards on the return.

Over-pursuing in kick coverage

Miami’s return man does a good job of reading this play and bouncing it outside. Seven of the Bills’ coverage men are bunched up by the numbers on the left side of the field, leaving lots of room to run on the right side of the field. Terrel Bernard gets caught squeezing to the inside and loses his contain, which results in a big return.

More bad lane discipline in punt coverage

The Bears should already have decent field position with the Bills kicking from their own end zone, but a decent return almost puts them in field goal range to start the drive. Being a gunner is a hard position, but the Bills have two of the better gunners in the league, and I expect more out of them on this play. The left-side gunner gets tangled up with a block and overruns the return man, and then the right-side gunner misses a tackle, even if it is a tough tackle to make. The most frustrating part of this play is Bernard taking a horrible angle and losing contain, which we have already seen in the kickoff portion of this article.

Protection breakdown leads to blocked punt

Blocked punts are never good, especially in a low-scoring game in tough weather. The Bills are lucky this didn’t turn into more points than just a safety (the Bills recovered a fumble on the Jets’ ensuing drive). Plays like these can be tough to come back from against top-notch teams. I’ll preface the analysis by saying that it’s tough to judge who’s at fault here without knowing the play call and what blocking principles the Bills teach on their punt team, but I will analyze it as I see it.

The personal protector, Jaquan Johnson, is usually taught to work his protection from inside out — which he does, but he gets taken out by his own man, and is unable to help on the free rusher. Buffalo’s guard on this play seems to block it correctly, as he passes off the first guy of the twist stunt to the outside and then takes the inside guy. However, the Bills’ tackle on this play, Bernard, doesn’t pick up the outside guy on the twist stunt and allows him to run free. Typically, punt-blocking schemes have their players cover their inside gap first, but Bernard fails to block anyone on this play.

Regardless of who was at fault on this play, the Jets exposed the Bills’ punt team, and you expect other teams to keep throwing unique looks at them to get another block. Take a look at the play below for a video of the proper way to block a twist stunt on punt team.

A properly blocked punt rush stunt

This is the proper way to block a twist stunt on punt team. The Bills’ left guard, Tyler Matakevich, passes off the outside man of the twist and works to the inside man. Then the Bills’ left guard, Tyrel Dodson, picks up the outside man of the twist.

Let’s try a fair catch next time, shall we?

The difference between starting a drive at the 25-yard line as opposed to the one-yard line is massive. Sometimes it’s tough to catch a punt in cold and windy conditions, but it sure looks like Nyheim Hines could have easily fair-caught this play and saved the Bills 20-plus yards of field position.

See previous header

Don’t get me wrong: I would rather the returner not catch the ball and let it roll than go after a punt they aren’t confident in catching and muffing it. But this ball should have been fair caught. It seems to me there was plenty of time for Hines to run up to the 25-yard line and fair-catch this ball. Again, a difference in field position here is a big deal. Hines needs to be better than this.

In summary

Bills head coach Sean McDermott always emphasizes the importance of special teams, but their special teams play has been subpar the past few weeks, to say the least. If the Bills want to advance deep in the playoffs, their special teams play needs to step up to the plate and be more consistent than they have been of late.