Lions should get help on special teams from rookie kicker

For Lions fans, it’s a year-long obsession to worry about the offense: Will Matthew Stafford take care of the ball? Is Calvin Johnson getting old and fragile? Will the receivers stop dropping the ball?

And it’s almost cliché to question the Lions’ defense.

But today we will focus on an area that goes almost forgotten by most fans, but it is no less important. In fact, the Lions have a chance to improve this phase of their game more than any other: their special-teams unit.

Last year, the Lions’ special-teams unit was ranked 27th in the NFL by the Dallas Morning News. The News ranks every team in the league in 22 categories and assigns points according to their standing — one for best, 32 for worst. Using this ranking system, the top-three units last year included New England, San Francisco and Kansas City. All of those teams were playoff teams, which tells you how important special teams can be.

The Lions fared better in a point-system ranking by The Lions ranked 30th in 2012 and were 10 spots better in 2013.

So the Lions’ special teams are improving. But no matter how you measure it, the Lions were not anywhere near the top of the league in special teams last year.

But here is the good news: The Lions have the potential to be better this year.

First, the Lions should have a better kicking game. Last year, David Akers struggled, ranking 29th in the NFL after making just 19 field goals. By comparison, the kickers from New England and Baltimore each made 38.

Akers made only 79.2 percent of his field-goal attempts, which ranked 27th in the league.

And a missed field goal — or a coach altering his strategy if a kicker is shaky — can change everything. Last year, the Lions lost five games by three points or fewer.

To try to fix this glaring problem, the Lions drafted kicker Nate Freese from Boston College in the seventh round. He made all 20 of his field goals last year, including a 52-yarder against Maryland as time expired.

I imagine the interview went something like this: “Wait a second, you didn’t miss last year?”


“Pack your bags, you are coming to the D.”

Now, there is no guarantee that a rookie kicker will produce. That’s the reason that tested, proven kickers turn gray. And first, Freese must beat out Giorgio Tavecchio. But competition is good.

If Freese wins the job, he also could handle kickoff duties. This year, the NFL is moving kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line to try to prevent injuries, so it is imperative to blast the ball into the end zone and get a touchback, forcing teams to start from the 20.

On the other hand, the Lions should be able to improve their overall return yardage.

Last year, the Lions ranked 21st in punt and kickoff returns. But this year, the Lions should have Jeremy Ross for the entire season. Ross played only 10 games last year but he averaged 16.2 yards per punt return, which would have led the NFL if he had enough returns to qualify. And he averaged 29.3 yards per kick return, which would have ranked fourth in the league if he had enough attempts to qualify. With Ross, the return game could be a strength.

Now, let’s move on to punting. Last year, fifth-round pick Sam Martin had a strong rookie season. He averaged 47.2 yards, sixth in the NFL. And the Lions allowed an average punt return of 7.8 yards, 11th in the league.

But Martin battled groin injuries and back pain, so it’s conceivable that he could be better if he’s healthier. More than anything, he needs to do a better job of pinning teams deep. Martin ranked 20th in the NFL with 22 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. And he punted into the end zone 10 times — only three punters had more, which isn’t a positive.

The one consistent on the special teams is long snapper Don Muhlbach, an 11-year vet. “He’s the best in the league,” Martin said.

So if you add it up — having a better kicker, the potential for a good punter to get even better and using Ross for the entire season — the Lions should be better on special teams.

Which will give them a shot to win those close games.


Posted by Tribune News Services

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