Thu, 29 Oct 2020

New Orleans Saints special teams units pick up where they left off

New Orleans Saints
20 Sep 2020, 06:11 GMT+10

Blocked FG attempt, fumble recovery highlight production in season opener John DeShazier

It shouldn't be a surprise now, given that the New Orleans Saints have done it often enough to snatch away that element.

But, still, the special teams performance in the 34-23 victory over Tampa Bay in the season opener bears a revisit, because it was as critical to the win as any special teams performance has been in recent memory for the Saints. And because the unit will need to carry its share of the load again Monday night, when the Saints (1-0) play the Las Vegas Raiders (1-0) at Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nev.

In no specific order:

Six-foot-eight defensive end Margus Hunt blocked a 54-yard field-goal attempt with his triceps in the second quarter, the Saints drove for a field goal of their own and carried a 17-7 lead into halftime;

Receiver Bennie Fowler recovered a muffed kickoff in the fourth quarter that led the Saints' final points, a field goal with 8:01 left;

Thomas Morstead, the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week, punted six times for a 44-yard average, with five punts downed inside the 20 and four fair catches. On Tampa Bay's lone punt return attempt, defensive back Justin Hardee Sr. tackled the returner at the Buccaneers' 10-yard line for no gain;

And Morstead, who famously was the kickoff man for the "Ambush" onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV, was the kickoff man on Tampa Bay's muff, as he popped up the kickoff to the 17-yard line when the Saints, due to a Buccaneers penalty, kicked off from the 50-yard line instead of their own 35;

All-Pro punt returner Deonte Harris returned four punts for 59 yards; his final one, an 18-yarder, allowed the Saints to begin a drive at their own 39 instead of the 21, and the offense drove for a touchdown in six plays to take a 31-17 lead;

And Pro Bowl kicker Wil Lutz made a couple of short field goals (29 and 21 yards) when drives stalled in the red zone.

All in all, it was a banner day for the units choreographed by special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, and a testament to amount of time and caliber of personnel that the Saints dedicate to the units.

And it was a pick-up from last season, when the Saints' special team units were outstanding - Harris and defensive back J.T. Gray were All-Pros at punt returner and special teamer, Lutz was the NFC Pro Bowl kicker, Morstead had a standout season and the unit blocked or deflected four punts.

"You start with a skill set, just as a special teams player," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "But then also, I think there's got to be a toughness and want-to. From a coaching perspective, it's guys that are creative, guys that are going to look each week for matchups and look each week maybe for an edge. Because all three of these phases, we're spending a crazy amount of hours looking for ways to win football games, so we spend a lot of time on these situations.

"Kicking off from the 50-yard line after a penalty, we worked that three or four different times in training camp. And fortunately, we get a fumble and we're there to recover it. It's the attention to detail and the ability to teach it."

The teaching, and execution, is noticed and appreciated by teammates.

"Special teams, I think, is probably the most important part of the game," running back Alvin Kamara said. "Those guys bring a lot of energy. It's easy to fall asleep on that team, I think, with other teams. But our guys take pride in it.

"They treat it like it's an offensive play or defensive play, it's another play to help this team reach its goal. We feed off that. I'm locked into special teams like I'm out there. It's good to see them playing well and having fun out there."

Playing well, having fun and, in the case of the season-opening win, making a handful of plays to ensure the team's success.

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