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Season Preview: Special Teams

After almost two decades of having one of the best special teams units in the NFL, the Lions have plummeted the last couple of years.   The Lions boasted some of the best special teams players in the league with guys like Eddie Murray, Jason Hanson, Mel Gray, Desmond Howard, Eddie Drummond, Scott Kowalkowski and Shaun Rogers while being coached by special teams legends like Frank Gansz and Chuck Priefer.

The Lions’ special teams performance has gone steadily downhill since Chuck Priefer retired in 2006.  Stan Kwan replaced Priefer, and despite being his understudy for several seasons never was able to achieve the same success.  Kwan was let go after the 2009 season.

Kwan bears a portion of the responsibility for the performance, but there were other mitigating factors.  Kwan had very little talent to work with and with all the injuries his best special teamers were moved into every down roles. 

In addition, Rod Marinelli took an extremely conservative approach to special teams.  Marinelli viewed special teams as a potential liability so he preferred to play it safe to avoid turnovers.  Kwan carried that cautious approach over into the Schwartz regime and that couldn’t be further from Schwartz’s approach to special teams.

Kwan was replaced by Danny Crossman who shares an aggressive mentality with Jim Schwartz.  Crossman believes in attacking on kick and punt coverage and setting up the return men for big plays.

The focal point of the Lions’ special teams unit will Be Jason Hanson for the 19th season.  Hanson is still a premier kicker int he league despite having a down season last year.  Hanson never quite recovered after having preseason knee surgery in 2009, which could be problematic in 2010 as he had the same surgery on the other knee last week.

Hanson gets good depth on kickoffs and has the best deep accuracy on field goals in the league.  He was asked to do more directional kicking on kickoffs under Kwan and Hanson wasn’t as comfortable with that.  Crossman wants Hanson to bomb the kicks as deep as possible and trust in the coverage.

Nick Harris also had a down year in 2009, but he has all the tools to be a Pro Bowl caliber punter.  Harris is a placement punter that usually excels at dropping punts inside the 20 and limits touchbacks.  He rarely had opportunities to pin opponents back in 2009 because he was frequently punting from deep in his own territory and he’s not the most powerful punter in the league.

The return game should be able to improve over last year, mostly because it would be difficult to do worse.  Three players spent time returning punts and four different players had  shot at winning the kick return responsibilities.  Aaron Brown, Derrick Williams and Dennis Northcutt received the bulk of the workload, but nobody really shined.

There have been certain players getting the bulk of the reps at kick and punt returner so far in training camp, but the only real way to evaluate return men is in live game action.  The leading candidates for the kick return job are Derrick Williams, Aaron Brown, Tim Toone and perhaps De De Dorsey.

Williams, Toone, Dennis Northcutt and Nate Burelson all figure to be in the mix for the punt return job.  Williams and Toone will get the bulk of the work in the preseason because the coaches know what they have in Northcutt and Burleson.  Keep Dre Bly in mind as a dark horse candidate to become the punt returner if he isn’t a starter at cornerback.

Ideally Derrick Williams wins both jobs so the Lions aren’t obligated to keep multiple players for return purposes. 

Don Muhlbach is solid as the long snapper and the less you hear his name the better.

Coverage-wise the Lions brought in some dynamic special teams guys to fortify the coverage units.  The Lions lost Casey FitzSimmons to injury-motivated retirement and released Kalvin Pearson so they needed to fill the void.  Dante Wesley, Landon Johnson, Ashlee Palmer, Brian Clark, Caleb Campbell and Isaiah Ekejiuba will look to bolster one of the league’s shakiest coverage situations over the last few years.  Throw in holdovers Vinny Ciurciu and Jordon Dizon and the Lions should be much improved.

New special teams coach, new mentality, better talent combined with some experienced and veteran leadership should make for an improved special teams unit in 2010.  If the Lions struggle defensively, like many are predicting, the Lions will need their special teams to not only improve to the point that they’re not a liability but to where they are a strength.

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