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Here's why the Broncos' special teams must "do a better job"

Andrew Mason Avatar
October 29, 2020

In a vacuum, one touchdown allowed on a kickoff return wouldn’t be a cause for panic. But in the reality of the Broncos’ 2020 season, that 102-yard touchdown gallop last Sunday by Kansas City’s Byron Pringle continues a pattern of frustrating moments for the Broncos’ special teams.

In two previous losses, the Broncos’ fortunes have turned on an explosive special-teams play against them: a dropped punt snap by Sam Martin in Week 2 at Pittsburgh and a blocked punt seven days later against Tampa Bay.

The dropped snap ensured that the Broncos needed two touchdowns in the final 10 minutes of the game; they got one, but were stopped on downs in field-goal range before they could get the second. The punt block set Tom Brady and the Bucs up for a quick touchdown that seemed to deflate the Broncos before they had much of a chance to settle into a rhythm in that 28-10 loss.

“We’ve had too many negative plays in the kicking game this year,” Broncos head coach Vic Fangio said. “We’ve got to do a better job of covering.”

Still, it hasn’t been all negative for the Broncos on special teams this year. McManus’ only missed field-goal attempt this season was from 58 yards; he’s 5-of-6 overall from 50 yards and beyond, a marked improvement from the previous four seasons, when he was 12-of-26 from that range. Martin has done exactly what he was expected to do. He ranks 13th in gross average (46.3 yards) and his placement punting has been solid, and he’s one of six qualified punters (2.5 punts per game) without a touchback so far this season. And their average of 11.7. yards on punt returns ranks sixth.

But there are the aforementioned miscues, and a kickoff-return average of just 16.8 yards that ranks 31st.

Sunday against the Chiefs, even the basics went askew. McManus missed the extra point after Drew Lock’s first-quarter touchdown run, ensuring that the Broncos would remain behind to stay. But it was the south-to-north sprint of Pringle that lingered. It squelched all momentum the Broncos had built on their previous drive, which had whittled the Chiefs’ lead to eight points.

The play began with McManus drilling the kickoff two yards deep into the end zone and left of the hashmarks — an impressive kick into a stiff wind. But as Pringle took the football and approached the Kansas City 20-yard line, he saw a lane developing.

Six Broncos players were blocked to his right. On Pringle’s left, Jeremy Cox was already blocked and down at the Kansas City 19. Three Broncos to Pringle’s left had a shot as he made an in-stride cut at the 18-yard line just inside the numbers: Nigel Bradham, Tyrie Cleveland and Duke Dawson Jr., All were between the 22- and 28-yard lines.

Bradham peeled off his blocker too late; Pringle zipped by him. Cleveland hesitated slightly to fill the crease, but Pringle made another cut — this one a 45-degree cut to the left — and darted in between Cleveland and Bradham, who fell to the ground in Pringle’s wake. From there, it was a clear sprint to the end zone.

“Guys have to be able to beat the blocks in space one-on-one and we’ve got to come off blocks. There’s no doubt about that,” Fangio said. “Our special-teams play overall and the coverage unit hasn’t been good enough when you look at the total picture. That’s an area that we’ll continue to work on and hopefully get better here soon.”

It was the first touchdown allowed on a kickoff return by the Broncos since Nov. 12, 2017 against New England. But it was the league-high fourth touchdown on any kind of special-teams return allowed since the start of the 2018 season, with three punt returns to go along with Pringle’s kickoff runback. Two of those returns have come in the Broncos’ last eight regular-season games.

Thus, a question to Fangio about special-teams coordinator Tom McMahon was inevitable. It was asked Wednesday, and resulted in Fangio affirming McMahon’s status.

“I have great confidence in Tom. Tom’s an experienced coach and he’s done a good job in this league for a long time. We’ve had our struggles here as of late but I’m confident Tom will lead the way and pull us out of them. He and I talk all the time—some of it we talk schemes, some of it personnel. We’re trying to get some players in there to possibly help on the coverage units. We do talk about it a lot.”

On the list of issues that ail the Broncos, the special-teams unit overall isn’t at the top. But for a team that has no margin for error against the NFL’s better sides, the frustrating moments against the Steelers, Bucs and Chiefs have helped turn fighting chances to win into defeat. For the sake of McMahon and the Broncos’ hopes of a turnaround, the self-inflicted wounds need to stop.

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