Everyone knows there are three units on a football team: offense, defense, and special teams. Offense and defense receive nearly all of the attention, and the true impact of special teams is usually lost. Seahawks fans have a long history of appreciating great special teams play, all the way back to Rusty Tillman. That unit played a major role in team fortunes as recently as 2010. That year, Pete Carroll and John Schneider’s first, one could argue that special teams was the only part of that squad that was above average. It was unlikely for a 7-9 team to make the playoffs that season, but it would have been impossible without the play of special teams. While most of us are focusing on how the offense or defense will perform in 2012, no unit may improve more than the special teams.
Schneider turned over the roster at breakneck speed in 2010, and brought in a lot of great special teams fodder in the process. There were rookies with terrific talent like Kam Chancellor, and talented veterans like Leon Washington, Michael Robinson, and Roy Lewis. The squad clicked, and became the 3rd ranked special teams unit in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders DVOA rankings. They made their impact on kickoff returns (ranked 2nd), kickoff coverage (6th), and punt returns (9th).
That roster turnover largely halted last season, and where there was change on the roster, it was adding players that did not impact the special teams. Free agent signings like Sidney Rice and Zach Miller were not going to play on the special teams. The draft had some great special teams prospects like Byron Maxwell, Malcolm Smith, and Richard Sherman, but none ended up playing that much either due to injury or being asked to step into starting roles on the defense.
The result was a precipitous drop to #17 on the Football Outsiders rankings. Kickoff coverage fell from 6th to 24th. Kick returns fell from 2nd to 12th. Punt returns fell from 9th to 16th. Overall, the unit was essentially neutral in terms of impacting the outcome of a game.
The 2012 season promises the kind of depth, athleticism and competition that can breed great special teams play. Jaye Howard, Korey Toomer and Jeremy Lane would not be on the team without the trades in the first and second rounds. All of them could play major roles on special teams. Winston Guy would appear to be a perfect special teams fit with his blend of speed and power. Bobby Wagner made three special teams tackles in the Senior Bowl, and could get some run depending on his responsibilities with the defense. Byron Maxwell and Malcolm Smith have had a year to get healthy and stronger and should be core parts of the team. Even Bruce Irvin could get some reps, and would be a beast out there. That’s without mentioning guys that already were playing well like Heath Farwell, Chris Maragos, and Allen Bradford.
Carroll wanted to add speed, and they did that. Speed does not always translate to great players on offense or defense, but often translates into great special teams players. Run fast, and tackle the guy. Great athletes tend to be able to do that. Leon Washington may also get pushed on returns by Golden Tate, or an undrafted guy like Phil Bates.
Special Teams coordinator Brian Schneider is a rising young star. Carroll has commented more than once that film study has led directly to kick or punt blocks. He was playing without a full compliment of weapons last season, but should be flush in 2012. Seahawks fans should enjoy a physical, powerful and blindingly fast unit that will be the difference in a few games.