It's been a remarkably productive season for Buffalo's return units on special teams this season. The Bills have three returns for touchdowns, two by Leodis McKelvin and one by Brad Smith. It's a big reason why Buffalo ranks tops in the league in kick return average and third in punt return average this season. Their coverage units however, haven't had as much success. It's left them vulnerable at times to return men like Miami's Marcus Thigpen, who already victimized them once this season.
Not long after McKelvin scored Buffalo's only touchdown on a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Thursday night meeting with the Dolphins, Miami return man Marcus Thigpen took back a 96-yard kickoff to keep the game close. The Bills went on to win the game 19-14, but head coach Chan Gailey realizes their coverage units have to be more consistent, much like other aspects of the team on offense and defense.
"I think we've done a great job with our return game. Kickoff return and punt return," said Gailey. "The coverage teams sometimes it's a combination of kicks, sometimes it's a combination of coverage and I don't have the exact answers, it's just you've got to keep trying to get all that to come together at one time so that you have quality coverage teams as well."
"I feel like the times that we've let returns get out it's always seems like there's just one little gap that we didn't cover and it left us exposed and they took advantage of it," said gunner Ruvell Martin. "That's kind of our goal every game to make sure we have all our lanes filled correctly and don't have any seams out there."
Buffalo currently ranks a respectable 12th in kick coverage, but 32nd in punt coverage thanks mainly to the 68-yard return by Jeremy Kerley in the opening week loss to the Jets and the 75-yard run back by the Colts' T.Y. Hilton in Week 12.
"When you give up long returns you know you're not in the right place," said Corey McIntyre. "We've got very good cover guys. Sometimes you've got to strain a little bit harder so those other teams don't make those plays on you."
"Every time we kick we're striving for that blanket coverage where there's nowhere for the returner to go," said Martin. "It's not easy. The (opponent) is out there trying to create a seam and we're trying to prevent that. We've done a good job of creating those seams in the return game, but we have to do a better job of preventing that from happening to us in coverage."
In their defense the coverage units have had to adjust to a change in punters and kickers. After starting with veteran Brian Moorman, Buffalo made a switch choosing to go with rookie Shawn Powell beginning in Week 4. In Week 10 the Bills released kickoff specialist John Potter choosing instead to go with veteran Rian Lindell, who is more adept at directional kicking.
"It makes a difference. It does," said Gailey. "We've changed both those positions during the course of the season and it makes a difference. I think that we've had some very good days and we've had some very bad days like the rest of the team."
Buffalo's return game is at a bit of a disadvantage this week, as it appears unlikely McKelvin's groin injury will allow him to play Sunday. Last week, Justin Rogers, a solid talent in his own right, return punts and kicks, with Brad Smith joining him on kickoffs.
"Leodis was really on fire there for a while and it's a shame he's been hurt lately," said Gailey. "It's different when your top guy is not in there it's different."
Rogers will be facing the league's leader in gross punting average in Brandon Fields, who averages over 50 yards per punt. He also stands sixth in the league in net punting average with an impressive mark of 41.4.
And then there's Thigpen, Miami's returner, who recently moved ahead of McKelvin in kick return average with a mark of 28.7. McKelvin still leads the league in punt return average (18.7), but Thigpen is not far behind at fifth in the NFL (12.0). He averaged over 15 yards on three punt returns in the first meeting with Buffalo.
Buffalo's coverage men respect Thigpen, but they know to have success against him they need to stay aggressive.
"The coaches believe in us, that we can go out and get the job done, so we just go out there and fly around and make plays," said Da'Norris Searcy. "We've just got to go out there and do our job, do our assignments and keep the guy contained."