Keith Armstrong is one of the best special teams coaches in the business, so it’s no great surprise he’s managed to keep the Falcons’ special teams unit from being a disaster in 2016. Is it as good through ten weeks as in the past, though?
The Falcons this year have no Devin Hester, for starters, and they lost key special teams cogs like Kroy Biermann along the way. The result has been an uneven performance by the returns teams, with Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher delivering their usual brand of excellence. That means a traditional strength for the team has been a bit of a mixed bag thus far, which we’ll look at a little further below.
A mixed return game
Eric Weems is the lightning rod here. Traditionally one of the team’s most valuable special teamers, Weems is arguably more valuable when he’s not fielding kicks and punts than when he is.
Part of that is decision-making. Weems has 15 kick returns and 15 punt returns on the year, and he’s averaging a respectable 23.4 yards on the former and 11.7 yards on the latter, showing the ability to get loose for sizable gains when his blocking cooperates. He has also allowed the ball to be downed inside the ten (and even the five) way too often this year, and has chosen to take the ball out of the end zone when there was no need to do so, costing the Falcons five or more yards in field position when he does. On balance, he has not been as bad as many fans would tell you he has been, but Weems has not been a tremendous difference maker as a returner, either.
That extends, somewhat, to the coverage side of things. The Falcons have allowed the 23rd-most punt return yards in the NFL at 11.4 yards per pop, which isn’t bad, but they’ve also surrendered the 10th-most kick return yardage at 22 yards per pop. Again, I’d suggest that the Falcons have not been bad, but they also have not done anything all that great, either. Armstrong will hope some of the young guys on the team grow into bigger contributors on returns.
It’s also crazy to realize that Weems is only 31 years old, because he’s been around since 2007, and he’s someone that should remain a fixture on special teams in Atlanta. Chances are good that he’ll lose his returner gig to Devin Fuller or another aspirant in 2017, though.
The legs remain terrific
Nothing’s changed here. Matt Bryant missed his first extra point in nearly a decade against the Eagles, but he’s hit 23 of 25 field goals (or 92%) and has nailed a number of kicks with high degrees of difficulty. After last year, I think it was fair to worry about whether he was going to return to form, but he has.
Matt Bosher, meanwhile, has been his usual stellar self. His 46.9 yards per punt average is the third-highest of his career, he’s put 14 of those inside the 20 yard line, and he’s still a willing and capable tackler on special teams. He does appear to be dealing with an injury right now, though, so we need to wait and see what’s going to happen with him going forward.
The offense has been the breadwinner all year and the defense has been the up-and-down roller coaster ride, but special teams has been a healthy mix of good and mediocre play. The Falcons used to be the kind of team that needed to nail the fundamentals, including special teams, in order to win, but the offense is so good this year that they’ve been able to get by with less-than-stellar play here. And, of course, Matt Bryant.
As long as Bryant and Bosher are healthy and the Falcons don’t suddenly fall apart completely on returns, though, they’re in good shape to supporting a winning football team.