Very quietly Buffalo’s kick return unit has been a difference maker for the Bills offense this season. Ranked in the top five in the league since Week 4, the Bills kick return unit currently sits atop the league with an average of 30.4 yards per return.
They also lead the league in average drive start off kickoffs as they average just past the 29-yard line for their offense (29.4), more than two yards better than any other team in football.
The only thing missing now is a scoring play. One that comes on a deep kickoff, with all due respect to Micah Hyde’s onsides return for a score in Week 7.
“I think we’re extremely close,” said core special teamer Julian Stanford. “A lot of times it’s just one block away. I think we just keep working on our fundamentals and our technique… it’s coming.”
“We’re always looking for those plays,” said head coach Sean McDermott. “I think the guys have really worked on the fundamentals and techniques on our kick return unit in particular. Whether it’s setting up, getting on the aiming points, getting our hands inside and then being in sync with Andre as well. We’ve had some chunk plays. Now the next step is to score on it. That’s the exciting part about what we do on kickoff return.”
First-year special teams coordinator Heath Farwell has a checklist for his units every week. Along with common goals like 100 percent effort, 100 percent ball security, 100 percent protection and no penalties, Farwell also wants Buffalo’s kickoff starting point to be better than their opponent and he wants one game-breaking play or more.
Though the Bills have had just 15 kick returns on the season, five have gone for 30 yards or more (33%). In two of the last three games, primary return man Andre Roberts has provided a 66-yard return against Washington and a 44-yard return last week against Miami. Both of those returns led to touchdown drives by the offense.
“We feel we are close.” Roberts said. “We’ve been doing good things this year. Just one of those times when we get a good opportunity, these last couple of weeks have just proven to us that if we keep working hard at fitting it up, we’ll have a chance at some point this year to get all the way to the house.”
Tyler Kroft, another member of the kick return unit, feels with a return man the caliber of Roberts back there, it motivates the unit all the more to execute their blocks perfectly.
“When we have him back there we know he’s going to hit the holes how they’re supposed to be hit,” Kroft said. “So if everyone is doing their job you’re not going to worry about him going rogue or bouncing things when he doesn’t need to. He’s zeroing in on what he’s trying to set up because he’s smart and understands schematically how we’re trying to attack people. So he does a great job of setting your blocks up for you too as long as you’re where you’re supposed to be.”
Roberts admits that with kickoffs now taking place at the 35 and the elimination of the wedge among other rule changes, touchdowns off kickoffs are fewer and further between.
“It’s tough to get touchdowns on special teams nowadays,” Roberts said. “I think our goal every game is not really to get a touchdown. It’s to help with field position. Get across the 25 and be better than the league average. Just help our offense out and help our defense out special teams-wise is one of our goals every week. The touchdown is the cherry on top.”
Though the changes in the game may have made returns for touchdowns harder to come by, it hasn’t kept the unit for striving to hit on that electrifying play when Roberts never stops running. And knowing Denver comes in with the 31st ranked kick coverage unit, Buffalo’s kick returners know there could be a prime opportunity Sunday.
“We just want to try to speak it into existence,” said Roberts smiling. “We’re not going to talk about how it’s going to be, but we’ll keep talking about it and hopefully some point we’ll get home.”
“It’s a long time coming. We’re anxious. We can’t wait,” said Stanford. “We’re excited for the opportunity to finally get in the end zone. We’ve been close a lot of times. We’re due.”