After finishing the 2008 season ranked first in the NFL on special teams, Buffalo's kicking units were expected to pick up right where they left off when the 2009 campaign got underway. With several veterans from the 2008 group back on the roster this fall more of the same stellar play was all but assured. But come the start of the season it didn't happen.
Penalties were a problem, coverage was leaky, Brian Moorman was the victim of some bad bounces and there were turnovers with Leodis McKelvin's fumbled kickoff in Week 1 and Roscoe Parrish's muff in Week 5 particularly costly.
But if the performance of Bobby April's units the past two weeks is any indication, that's changing for the better and fast.
Two weeks ago Buffalo's kick coverage unit ranked 29th in the league allowing almost 27 yards a return (26.7). Entering their Week 8 matchup with the Houston Texans they're now ranked 18th. The punt coverage unit was ranked 11th in the league two weeks ago. Heading into Sunday's game they're ranked fourth.
Steady improvement throughout the course of the season has been typical for April's special teams units, but this sharp spike in production the past two weeks is unusual. Even Buffalo's special teams coordinator can't put his finger on exactly why their performance has dramatically improved other than to acknowledge that the dedication of his players has never wavered.
"They generally get better every week, but to make that kind of a jump I can't figure," said April. "We want the kind of performance we had these past two weeks, but usually the improvement is more incremental in nature. I don't know what to make of it. We've got a lot of the same guys, but there are some young ones mixed in there and now they're getting experience as they go."
Younger players like rookies Nic Harris and Ashlee Palmer were getting flagged for penalties in the early going, but that's been trimmed back considerably. After committing 11 enforced penalties in the first five games, Buffalo has just two special teams penalties in their last two games including none last week at Carolina.
But what has really made the biggest difference is Buffalo's coverage units. Through the first five games their kick coverage was not good at all. Allowing almost 27 yards a return has been traditionally high for Buffalo. In their last two games however, they've allowed a miniscule 14.6 yards per kick return. It's helped them shave more than three yards off their season average.
Their punt coverage has been even better. It wasn't bad to begin with as the Bills allowed 7.6 yards per return through the first five games. In their last two outings though, Buffalo has been downright stingy permitting opposing returners an average of 1.3 yards per return. As a result they've almost cut their season average in half (4.8).
"It's been two weeks in a row," said April of his group's punt coverage. "Two weeks ago (Jim) Leonhard had four returns for one yard. This past week they had 12 yards on six returns. So two weeks in a row they've really been playing lights out. Brian (Moorman) is hitting it pretty consistently. He's been hanging them up pretty good giving us enough time to get down there."
Moorman has also been the beneficiary of some good bounces, something he wasn't getting earlier in the season. Through the first five games Moorman had just three of his 28 punts downed inside the 20 with six of those kicks going for touchbacks.
In his last two games eight of his 16 punts have been downed inside the 20 with no touchbacks. Moorman had four of his eight punts downed inside the 20 against Carolina.
"Those guys really played hard," said April of their effort against the Panthers. "Brian punted the ball good. He had a couple that he mishit. He bobbled the ball on the last one and it was not a real good kick, but it ended up being a real good result and the kid muffed it and it ended up being a huge play in the game."
Derek Fine recovered the muffed punt in the fourth quarter and it led to an insurance field goal for Buffalo.
"I was just closing in and the ball came squirting out at me," said Fine. "I wasn't going to be able to bend over and get it or fall on it because I was coming at the ball so hard. So it shot out at my feet and I kind of kicked at it with my foot and it shot up to my hands and I was able to grab it. It worked out."
It was Buffalo's second takeaway on special teams in as many weeks. Against the Jets, John Wendling leaped up to intercept a Steve Weatherford pass attempt after the botched game-winning field goal attempt in overtime.
Once again Buffalo's special teamers are making the plays most are accustomed to seeing them make.
"I think that's kind of what we've been trying to work toward," said Fine. "It really hadn't come out real well on special teams early in the year. We've kind of been progressively getting better. We've really come together as a group on special teams and tried to get to a higher level and hold ourselves to a higher standard and it showed in the game Sunday."
The longest punt return in the game for Carolina went just seven yards, with the other five that were returnable covering a total of five yards.
"They covered like crazy," said April of last Sunday's performance. "They were tremendous hits on a lot of them too. Justin (Jenkins), (John) Wendling, Corey (McIntyre) and then (Ashlee) Palmer and later Wendling had another one, not a big hit, but all of them were fast tackles."
Those plays along with solid kick coverage were essential in handing Carolina an average drive start on offense of their own 19-yard line in the game.
"For them it wasn't good, but it was great for us," said Fine. "That field position is big for our defense. So on special teams whatever we can do to give our team an advantage in field position we're going to do."
All April is hoping for is the trend to continue.
"Early in the year we weren't getting bounces," he said. "We definitely had to change slot machines, change tables or change the dealer because we needed the odds to work in our favor a little more."
And the play of April's teams over the past two weeks is strong indication that the odds have turned around. But they'll get perhaps their stiffest test of the season this week when they face a Houston unit that has a dynamic return man in Jacoby Jones and coverage units that are currently ranked better than Buffalo's. The Texans boast the third-ranked punt coverage unit and top ranked kick coverage team.
But April has always believed if his group executes their assignments they'll be successful, and with their recent play he's confident that will continue.
"All I can say is the guys have been real methodical about improving and the focus has been on improving and getting better," said April. "Now that they have I believe we can keep going because if we do we'll be really good."