The 2018 season was a down year for Buffalo’s special teams. The Bills ranked 20th in punt coverage, 21st in punt return average, 24th in kick return average, 28th in opponent’s average drive start and 31st in punting. Head coach Sean McDermott made the changes he felt were necessary and GM Brandon Beane made free agent additions to the roster with special teams in mind. Here’s why Buffalo’s special teams units should be demonstrably better than they were a year ago.
1. Pro bowl returner
Last season Buffalo cycled through a handful of return candidates. The Bills used five different players as the primary kick returner and seven different players as the punt returner. The lack of continuity left the Bills in the bottom third of the league in both categories.
To address the issue Buffalo’s front office signed a free agent return specialist who figures to handle both roles full time. Andre Roberts, the former Jets’ return man, is coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he tied for the league lead in punt return average (14.1) and was second in the league in kick return average (29.4).
“I think it’s pretty big for a team to have one guy handle both,” Roberts said. “Obviously, there are teams around the league that have two guys doing it, but I think me being able to handle both and do both at a high level is important. Playing in a place like this, playing in cold weather, windy weather, punters and kickers have to kick you the ball. It makes us that much more important, to be able to catch it and to be able to be impactful.”
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2. Cutting-edge schemes
New special teams coordinator Heath Farwell has a longer NFL playing career as a special teamer than he does as a coach. An assistant special teams coach with Seattle and Carolina the last three seasons, Farwell offers the rare combination of coaching ability while also being not too far removed from the game as a player to relate to what works best against some of the tougher return specialists in the game.
“What I lack in experience in coaching I kind of make it up with playing time,” said Farwell, who went to the Pro Bowl as a special teamer in 2009. “I’ve played against a couple of these guys and just being in those locker rooms a handful of years ago, I feel like I’ve had a good relationship with them and am still building it. Understanding what they go through every day, I would say, nobody knows it better than I do.
Knowing how to adjust to the new kickoff rules, while also staying up with the cutting-edge schemes of the league has Farwell poised to put his coverage and return unit players in advantageous positions on a weekly basis.
“Playing fast and playing smart and playing with juice is kind of the motto we have got around here,” he said. “We want that screaming off the tape. They’ve got to play with great effort, strength and then playing smart. We have got to be smart, we got to know the rules, those are the things. And playing with energy, that’s what the best teams are about. Playing with juice.”
3. Veteran special teamers
Buffalo already had veterans like Lorenzo Alexander and Pat DiMarco on their special teams units, but the personnel department made a point of adding more experienced specialists to the core of the group.
Along with the return specialist Roberts, a 10-year vet, the Bills signed free agent RB Senorise Perry, a coverage team specialist who led the Dolphins and the Bears in special teams tackles each of the past two seasons.
Coupled with incumbents like Deon Lacey, Lafayette Pitts and Julian Stanford, the Bills return and coverage units should help to push Buffalo’s special teams into the top half of the league or higher.
“All those veterans, I rely on them heavily,” said Farwell. “Getting a good understanding of what the feel is, is that clear enough to them, is it clear enough to the young guys because I know the older guys get it, but what are the young guys getting? It’s the whole group, I’m speaking to.
“So I rely on all of these guys who have done this and who have been in special team rooms whether it’s here or with other teams. They are very valuable and I am definitely taking full advantage.”