Among the many other intrigues of Sunday’s game is the return game.
As I wrote for today’s paper, Bryan Walters is out Sunday and Seattle will have new returners — likely Doug Baldwin for kickoffs and Paul Richardson for punts. Baldwin has done a handful of kickoffs in his career. But for Richardson it would be the first returns of his NFL career after he finally got some significant action last week as a receiver.
The events further indicate the shakeup in special teams of the past few weeks with Earl Thomas beginning the season as the punt returner, replaced by Walters after the first game, and now likely Richardson to get his shot; and Baldwin taking over for Walters, who took over for the traded Percy Harvin as the kickoff returner.
Like a lot of things, it illustrates some of the differences in the 2013 Seahawks and the 2014 version.
Last year, Golden Tate handled the punt return duties from start to finish, doing so well enough that Pro Football Focus rated him the best punt returner in the NFL at the end of the season.
But with Tate gone, Seattle had to turn elsewhere. The Thomas experiment didn’t work and Walters is now hurt, forcing the Seahawks to make another change.
The special teams, though, have been in some flux all season. That’s always the case, of course, with injuries and everything else that happens. But last year Seattle had what many considered the best overall special teams in the NFL due in part to the play of special teams standouts such as Heath Farwell (on IR) and Chris Maragos (off to Philadelphia) as well as Jeremy Lane (out since week one with an injury) and Derrick Coleman (out at least six weeks with a broken foot).
Coleman’s injury last week meant Kevin Norwood had to play on the kickoff coverage team. It was Norwood who was stiff-armed out of the way by St. Louis’ Benny Cunningham on his 75–yard return that set up St. Louis’ first touchdown.
It was the first time Norwood had had to make a tackle in an NFL game.
“Oh man that was crazy,” he said. “My head was on a swivel. I was trying not to get knocked out or nothing like that” adding with a laugh that “that was my first play and Lord knows I got stiff-armed.”
Norwood settled down from there. And while the special teams had a tough day on Sunday, the overall picture is still pretty good for Seattle. Some of the personnel changes, though, seem to illustrate that like a lot of areas of this team, the margin for error is simply smaller than it was last season.
But as punter Jon Ryan noted this week, Seattle’s punt cover team has allowed just 20 return yards on 25 kicks this season other than the 90-yard trick play return by the Rams last week.
“It’s frustrating to have that permanent blemish on your punt return team stats for the year,” Ryan said. “But stuff happens. If you play this game long enough you are going to see it all, and we saw another new thing Sunday.”
Indeed, Ryan said he saw the whole play unfolding but “when I’m back there I really can’t do much.”
The good news is there seems no way Seattle would ever see a special teams day like that one — one that special teams coach Brian Schneider called “a perfect storm” — ever again.
Now for a few links. …
— Seahawks.com with five things to watch Sunday.
— Seahawks.com also says each team is looking to regain its defensive swagger.
— Three things to watch from Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.
— Panthers.com notes how beat up Carolina is heading into the game.
— Carolina tight end Greg Olsen is a player Seattle has to watch Sunday.
— ESPN.com with a Panthers’ mailbag leading off with some of the team’s defensive issues.
— More on Carolina’s injuries.
— Lindy’s picks the Seahawks 27-23 and offers some matchups to watch.
— Harvin makes his Jets debut against the Bills Sunday.