Lions still working out kinks with special teams' strategy

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Return man Jamal Agnew (39) has had a few big plays wiped out by penalties.

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions’ special teams have been anything but special to start the season.

Through three games, the team ranks near the bottom of the league in multiple categories, and penalties have been problematic, negating a couple quality returns by All-Pro Jamal Agnew.

Most troubling, the Lions have given up at least one big return in each contest, including a touchdown in the season opener, and what should have been a second in Week 2 had the 49ers return man not been flagged for a face mask a few strides short of the goal line.

There’s a lot going on with coverage units this season. There’s the turnover, with a few of the standouts from recent years not on the squad. Don Carey, the longtime ace of the group wasn’t re-signed, nor was defensive end Brandon Copeland. And linebacker Steve Longa, last year’s leading tackler on special teams, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the preseason.  

“It takes a little time to jell as a unit,” safety and core special teamer Miles Killebrew said. “I would say we’re getting there.”

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Then, there’s the rule changes, which have been an adjustment for everyone. Many teams have responded to the elimination of running starts on kickoffs by booting it out of the end zone as often as possible, but Detroit has tried to gain a strategic advantage, forcing a difficult return as opposed to just giving opponents the ball at the 25.

So far, it’s backfired.

Detroit ranks last in touchback percentage through three weeks, and it’s not close. Only 29.4 percent of kickoffs have been downed in the end zone, while the next closest are Oakland and New England at 42.9 percent. Seven teams have touchback rates better than 80 percent and 28 are better than 50 percent.

Meanwhile, opponents are averaging 29.2 yards on kickoffs against the Lions, which ranks third-worst in the NFL.

“I think, in general, that play is an interesting play right now because I think a lot of people are trying to look at it with the change in the rules to see exactly what’s the best way to handle that particular play,” coach Matt Patricia said. “Certainly, a lot of it depends on the opponent you’re playing. I think it’s a week-to-week thing.”

For those wondering about punter Sam Martin, who labored through the 2017 season after a foot injury kept him sidelined to start the year, he said he’s still more than capable of netting touchbacks on kickoffs, if that’s what Patricia wants him to do.

“All those NFL coaches on Twitter don’t think so, but for sure,” Martin said. “People need to think logically, I think. I’m a 70-percent touchback guy normally. I don’t even know what I am now. There’s some strategy now.

“Touchback percentage is irrelevant to me right now. Back in the day, I wanted to be the top guy in the league, but it’s not a stat I pay attention to now. It’s more about pinning them.”

As for his punting, outside of some less-than-ideal efforts in the swirling conditions against the 49ers, Martin has been pleased with the placement and hang time on his boots, despite a league-worst 30.2 net average to start the season.

If the way the team finished the New England game last weekend is any indication, improvement is in progress. After allowing Cordarrelle Patterson to take the opening kickoff back 45 yards, the team limited the Patriots to 21.5 yards on their final four attempts, while Martin had a healthy 45-yard net on punts.

“It comes down to discipline,” Killebrew said. “It’s something we’ve had to get corrected, something we are working on and continuing to work on."

Lions at Cowboys

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV/radio: Fox/760

Records: Lions 1-2, Cowboys 1-2

Line: Cowboys by 3

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers