"That hasn't been one of our strengths," coach Andy Reid said Wednesday, in characteristic understatement.
For the second consecutive week on Tuesday, Reid cut a special-teams player just to make sure everyone is aware of his dissatisfaction. One week after turning loose linebacker Brian Rolle in favor of Adrian Moten, the Eagles cut Moten to bring in Jason Williams. Moten was on the field for 16 of the 17 special-team plays against the Steelers, and whatever he did, it apparently wasn't impressive.
"Not only do we need to do a better job coaching, we need to do a better job playing," Reid said. "I'm going to try to bring in guys until . . . we get it right . . . that can impact you on special teams. We'll give this kid an opportunity and see how he does."
The opportunity for improvement is easy to see. Going into Sunday's game against the Lions at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles are ranked 30th among the 32 NFL teams in kickoff returns and are tied for 28th in punt returns. On the other side, their kickoff-coverage unit is 28th in the league, and the punt-coverage unit is 25th.
Put it all together and it means the Eagles have been playing every game at a distinct field-position disadvantage. The defense has to protect a shorter field, and the offense has to traverse a longer one.
The return units have been a more glaring problem this season, simply because those units have the ability to score or set up scores, and the offense could really use the help. Neither Boykin nor punt returner Damaris Johnson has been able to get loose for a game-changing play. To be honest, they haven't been able to get loose for much of anything. Boykin's longest kickoff return in 13 tries is 29 yards. Johnson's best punt return was 13 yards, the lowest figure for any regular punt returner in the league.
"I feel we're getting closer, but the other teams are executing real well and we're not at this point," Johnson said. "We need a big play in the game. If one guy gets out of his gap, a big play occurs. We've seen that on film."
They definitely have seen it on film this week in scouting the coverage units of the Detroit Lions. In each of their last two games, the Lions have given up one punt return for a touchdown and one kickoff return for a touchdown. That's 14 free points for the Titans in a 44-41 overtime loss and 14 free points for the Vikings in a 20-13 loss. Take away those breakdowns - which the Lions certainly are trying to do - and Detroit might be 3-1 instead of 1-3.
"We worry about what we're doing. It's not like just because they gave up one, they're going to give up one to us," Akeem Jordan said. "It's just a matter of time for us. We're getting better each week, and hopefully one pops. Then, you keep it going like a train rolling."
The attention always will focus on the return men, but the problems have been about more than what Boykin and Johnson are doing, or not doing. (Although, admittedly, neither has shown much.) It also comes down to the blocking schemes and to the blockers' taking care of their assignments.
"There have been a few fair catches in the punt game, and the opportunities that we've had, we could have done better," Reid said. "Then in kickoff, it doesn't look like there is a whole lot of room to run. It's a culmination of things, and we have to get it right."
Judging by Reid's actions alone, it appears he thinks the blocking needs to be tightened, since that is where he has made the personnel changes. If so inclined, he could try Mardy Gilyard or Dion Lewis back there, or, depending on the game and the situation, use either DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin. For now, he appears set on staying with Boykin and Johnson, but the lack of production can't go on much longer.
"There have been a couple of games where you look at the film, pause it, and there's a hole," Casey Matthews said. "I'm not a returner, so it's hard to see what they see, but sometimes you've got to have blind faith and hit it. We've been close on a couple of returns and had all our blocks, but it's all based on the returner's vision. Sometimes, the hole is there, but he just didn't feel comfortable hitting it."
Maybe everyone will feel more comfortable playing against a team that has given up four return touchdowns in its last two games. It can't hurt.
"Every game, we want to break one," Boykin said. "Hopefully, this will be the time.
Bob Ford: No Returns
Here is a look at the struggling Eagles and Lions special teams:
Eagles return units 6.0-yd. avg. (T28th) 19.6-yd. avg. (30th)
Specialist rankings Johnson (28th of 30) Boykin (24th of 27)
Lions cover units 27.3-yd. avg. (32d) 32.8-yd. avg. (31st)
- Bob Ford
Contact Bob Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org, read
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