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Special Teams Again No. 2 In NFC East

Posted Feb 12, 2012

The Eagles dominated the NFC East with a division-best 5-1 record in 2011. One of the under-the-radar reasons for the success was the performance of Bobby April's special teams unit which for a second straight season finished behind only Washington among the NFC East squads, according to the rankings provided by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News.

Gosselin ranks the 32 NFL teams from 1-32 in 22 different statistical categories and provides a cumulative score which is considered the standard by which NFL teams are judged. The Eagles finished 20th in the league with a total score of 376 points. Washington was 19th overall with a score of 370. Amazingly enough, the NFC East teams finished in consecutive order as the Cowboys were third in the division and 21st overall with a score of 393. The Giants finished 22nd and last in the division with 397.5 points.

The San Francisco 49ers were ironically 1st in Gosselin's rankings with a league-low total of 225.5 points. The reason it's ironic is because two special teams miscues cost the 49ers dearly in the NFC Championship Game loss to the Giants. The AFC Champion Patriots were fifth in the rankings with 294 points. The Carolina Panthers brought up the rear finishing last with 492.5 points.

Here's the interesting thing about the rankings. Gosselin pointed out that four of the top 10 teams in his special teams rankings won their respective divisions - San Francisco, New England, New Orleans (8th) and Denver (10th). However, none of the other six teams in the top 10 made the playoffs.

Let's take a further look at the Eagles performance. First, Eagles fans should hope that special teams MVP Colt Anderson can return to a prolific level of performance in 2012. Anderson suffered a season-ending ACL injury during the Dec. 1 loss in Seattle. From a statistical standpoint, Anderson led the team in special teams production points and special teams tackles at the time of his injury. Despite missing the last four games of the season, Anderson finished second on the team in both categories.

Where Anderson was missed at the end of the season was on the coverage units. The Eagles were still able to finish third in the league in punt return coverage, but fell to 14th in kickoff return coverage due in large part to Anderson's absence. The Eagles were at one point first in the league in average starting field position after a kickoff, but dipped to third in the NFC with an average starting position of the 21.4-yard line.

The area that was troublesome enough that even head coach Andy Reid acknowledged it in his end-of-the-season press conference was the return game. The Eagles were 28th in the league in punt return average despite a Pro Bowl returner in DeSean Jackson. The Eagles were 31st in kickoff return average with rookie Dion Lewis as the primary returner on kickoffs.

The Eagles also had two rookies at the specialist positions with kicker Alex Henery and Chas Henry at punter. Henery had a record-setting season as he broke the all-time NFL rookie record for field goal percentage (as well as the team franchise record) with a success rate of 88.9 percent. Henry had a solid rookie campaign at punter, but finished the year with his best gross average (50.3 yards per punt) and second-best net average (45.5 yards per punt).

If the Eagles can improve the return game from an offensive standpoint as well as see improvement in Henry's game, the Eagles can get to the upper-echelon of special teams which is what April was accustomed to in Buffalo. In six years with the Bills, April orchestrated the league's best special teams unit, according to Gosselin's rankings, three times.

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