They weren't the first choices to return kicks and punts for the Bills this season. They weren't the second options either, but Justin Rogers and Leodis McKelvin have been remarkably effective for Buffalo's kick return and punt return units down the stretch in 2011.
So much so that head coach Chan Gailey even expressed a bit of regret that he hadn't let rookie Justin Rogers return kicks sooner.
"He's continued to get better," said Gailey. "He finally got an opportunity and when he got it he took advantage of it. He's been a force in kickoff return and I guess that says something about me not having him there earlier. Maybe I should have."
The first 11 weeks of the NFL season were not kind to Buffalo's return units as they ranked 31st and 17th in the league in kickoff and punt return average respectively. Increased roles on offense for both Brad Smith and C.J. Spiller, which were prompted by injury, led to changes at the returner positions as well.
McKelvin assumed duties on both kick and punt return against the Jets in Week 12, a top 10 kick coverage unit in the league at the time. He never had the chance to return a punt against New York as they forced him to make three fair catches. On kick returns he averaged 21.5 yards a return on just two attempts.
The following week the Bills again faced one of the strongest legged kickers in the league in Tennessee's Rob Bironas, who prevented Buffalo from even attempting a kick return. McKelvin was also forced to take a pair of fair catches along with a pair of returns that went for a combined 10 yards.
Come Week 13 Justin Rogers was inserted as the kick returner while McKelvin remained on punt return. The rookie showed flashes of potential at San Diego with a 33-yard return and a 24-yard average.
Rogers has followed that up with improved performances against Miami (33.3-yard avg.) and Denver (33.7-yard avg.) with the two longest returns of the season in those games of 40 and 54 yards. It's all contributed to significantly better drive starts for Buffalo's offense of late.
"I'm just trying to give them good field position and get it past the 20," Rogers told Buffalobills.com. "The goal is to score, but the guys on our kick return team in front of me, they're doing a good job of giving me seams. My job is to hit those seams as fast as I can."
Prior to Rogers return exploits Buffalo's kick return average was 20. In the last three games the kick return average is 33.6.
In fairness to Smith and Spiller, the colder weather has led to more opportunities for Rogers with the ball not flying as far.
"That's what it all boils down to," Rogers said. "The temperatures start dropping and the wind plays a factor so guys aren't knocking it out of the back of the end zone. That's given me an opportunity late in the season with the weather and coach has given me the green light to go."
The late season weather may have benefited McKelvin as well. With the colder weather affecting the hang time and distance of kicks for punters McKelvin had three legitimate opportunities to make returns.
The biggest was obviously his 80-yard return for a touchdown. McKelvin fielded the punt on the right side of the field between the hashes and the numbers and then used his speed to outflank the Denver coverage unit down the left side of the field. He managed to tip toe the sideline and get past Broncos punter Britton Colquitt to reach the end zone for a touchdown.
"I told the guys before if you give me three times with the ball in my hands I guarantee one ball will go to the end zone," said McKelvin. "They gave me a great opportunity to return the ball this week and everything happened for a reason."
McKelvin's return gave the Bills a lead they would never relinquish in the win over Denver. He also had a 38-yard return to the Denver 28 that provided the offense with another scoring opportunity and 17-yard return in the second half that led to a field goal.
With 135 punt return yards in Saturday's game against Denver, McKelvin set a single-game team record eclipsing the previous mark set by Roscoe Parrish (120 yards) in 2008.
"The return game has been big for us whether it was kickoff return or punt return," said head coach Chan Gailey. "I thought Leodis made some really good decisions whether to run the ball or to catch it and not run it. Of course the big play was the touchdown, but that helps you field position-wise. It gives everybody a boost of confidence when you have those situations and you get big plays or big field position out of your kicking game."
Heading into the final week of the regular season Buffalo ranks 22nd in kick return average and an impressive third in punt return average, with the most recent results vaulting the Bills up several places in both categories.
"That's what we play the game for," said McKelvin. "Special teams has a role in this game too. We've done a great job on kickoff return and punt return."