Punter, punt coverage key to Eagles' surge

"It starts with Donnie [Jones]," Colt Anderson says of his teammate. "He's done an excellent job for us, getting the ball out, getting great hang time."
"It starts with Donnie [Jones]," Colt Anderson says of his teammate. "He's done an excellent job for us, getting the ball out, getting great hang time." (RON CORTES / Staff)
Posted: December 08, 2013

The Eagles' success in punt coverage could be summed up with two words: Donnie Jones.

But crediting the punter for all of the unit's accomplishments would be slighting how much of a role players like Brandon Boykin, Colt Anderson, Kurt Coleman and James Casey have contributed on special teams this season.

As the Eagles prepare for a huge game Sunday against the Detroit Lions at Lincoln Financial Field, the punt-cover team is third in the NFL in return average allowed (a lowly 5.5 yards). Jones has dropped a second-best 29 punts inside the 20. And his net average (41.3 yards) is seventh in the league.

"We've had a lot more situational punting this year, really meaningful plays at the end of games," said Jones, who has won back-to-back NFC special-teams player-of-the-week awards following the Eagles' last two games. "I feel like I've been really solid. It's putting in the work in the week and coming out executing as a unit.

"But I couldn't do my job if [Jon Dorenbos] wasn't a great snapper. I couldn't do my job if these guys didn't protect and go down and cover."

Dorenbos, who hasn't had a snafu in ages, snaps the ball. Jones boots it. Boykin and Roc Carmichael are the gunners. And Anderson, Coleman and Casey are usually the first inside guys down, although Casey Matthews, Najee Goode and Jeff Maehl have made first-contact tackles as well.

Kick-return cover included, Anderson leads the Eagles with 14 special-teams tackles, followed by Casey (10), Matthews (9), Coleman (7), Goode (6) and Carmichael and Maehl (5).

"It starts with Donnie," Anderson said. "He's done an excellent job for us, getting the ball out, getting great hang time and putting it in spots where we ask him to do it. Next in line is our gunners - they're getting downfield. And then the inside guys - everybody's covering their butts off."

The difference between this year and last is significant. In 2012, the Eagles were second-to-last in the league in punt return average (13.6 yards) and in net punting average (36.9). And they were last in punts inside the 20 with only 15.

This season, Boykin has been especially adept at downing balls close to the goal line.

Special-teams coach Dave Fipp uses a common fan method to cover punts. His predecessor Bobby April employed it as well

"All the teams do it," Anderson said. "It's just the way you get out that decides where you cover the field. If you're the first guy out, you're the middle. If you're the second, you start to fan out. And the third even more and then you start to collapse."

Fipp's units have had the occasional breakdown. The Denver game was particularly forgetful. The kick-cover team allowed a 105-yard kick return for a touchdown and a Jones punt was blocked and returned for a score.

The return teams also haven't been as consistent as the cover units, but replacing Damaris Johnson with DeSean Jackson on punts and Boykin and Brad Smith on kicks has brought some improvement.

But the cover teams have stood out, forcing opposing offenses to start on average just past the 21-yard line.

"The field position has been outstanding," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "That is a huge part of why we have had some success in the game against Arizona. Donnie putting it inside the 20 is really unbelievable. He's been as big a reason for us having success defensively as anybody."

A game after his clutch 70-yard punt that pinned the Redskins inside the 5 on their last possession, Jones booted a 69-yarder against the Cardinals on Sunday and dropped seven punts inside the 20. The NFL record in one game is eight.

Jones is generating talk about a Pro Bowl invite, which would be an Eagles first.

"He's not flaky," Dorenbos said of Jones. "He's a true pro. In practice, he'll get on himself. But he gets better and he takes it upon himself to do whatever it is he has to do to get it right. He's been in the league for 10 years. That's not an accident."

Wolff out again. Safety Earl Wolff, as expected, was listed as out for Sunday's game against the Lions.

Wolff didn't practice all week and missed the previous two games with a knee sprain. He said earlier this week that best-case scenario is he'll be back for the Dec. 15 game at the Vikings. Patrick Chung will start again in his place.

Reserve linebacker Najee Goode (hamstring) was also listed as out.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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