Inside the NFL: Kickers, punters going the distance - The Buffalo News

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Inside the NFL: Kickers, punters going the distance

The NFL’s golden era of long kicking and punting moved full steam ahead this season.

The gradual increase in both net punting averages and long field goal numbers continues to climb.

Entering the final day of the regular season, there have been 90 field goals made of 50 or more yards. That’s just two shy of the season record, set last year. There were 90 field goals of 50-plus yards in 2011.

The most ever in any year before that was 66, in 2008. In 2000, there were just 38 field goals of 50 or more yards made.

Are the numbers a result of teams trying far more long kicks? Yes, but the success rate has gone way up, too.

Teams have averaged 142 50-plus attempts the past three years. The average was 105 the previous three-year span. It was 83 per season in the 1990s. Kickers are making a record 66.2 percent of 50-plus kicks this year. It was 57 percent from 2008 to 2010. It was 47 percent in the 1990s.

Clearly, head coaches have caught onto the idea that it’s a good idea to try more 50-yard kicks.

Now onto punting.

No NFL punter had broken the 40-yard net-average barrier until 2007, when Oakland’s Shane Lechler and San Francisco’s Andy Lee both did it.

The next year four punters did it. In 2009 six did it. Last year 15 did it.

This year 14 are averaging 40.0 net yards entering the final week. St. Louis’ Johnny Hekker leads at 43.8 yards, just shy of Lee’s record of 44.0 yards set in 2011.

Hekker is a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder, an indication of at least part of the reason for the increases.

“I think the NFL is reaping the rewards of a generation of kickers who grew up playing soccer and grew up with a tremendous amount of experience kicking the ball,” said Bruce DeHaven, Carolina’s assistant special teams coach and the longtime former Bills aide. “Years ago, a lot of the kickers were smaller guys. Now you’ve got more guys who were great high school and college athletes, who are bigger, stronger athletes.”

There are plenty of other factors. Field conditions are better than 20 years ago. The quality of long-snapping is better. In terms of punting strategy, I think teams over the past decade have made a greater commitment to placing more “directional” punts outside the numbers, thereby giving the returners less room to go to either side.

Do the balls go farther? Kick-return great Brian Mitchell suggested as much in an interview with The News’ Tim Graham last month. Gross punting averages have seen a 2-yard spike since 2011, compared with the average of the decade before. I don’t know if the ball goes farther, but you have to wonder.

Said Bills punter Brian Moorman on the 40-yard net barrier: “I don’t really have an answer for it. … It’s still not an easy thing to do. To me, net average is a great team stat, because they’re not all going to be fair catches. If for some reason someone gets out of their lane, hopefully I’ve got the hang time to cover for it. And if for some reason I don’t get the hang time, hopefully our guys cover for me.”

Great Broncos

Denver has scored 572 points and needs only 18 today against Oakland to surpass the single-season record of 589 set by New England during its undefeated regular season of 2007. Denver’s average of 38.1 points per game is second in history to the 1950 Los Angeles Rams, who averaged 38.8 a game.

Third on the points list is the 2011 Packers (560), followed by the 2012 Patriots (557).

Denver’s Peyton Manning already broke Tom Brady’s single-season TD pass record of 50 last week. Manning has 51.

Manning needs only 266 passing yards to break the record of 5,476 set by Drew Brees in 2011. He probably won’t break Brees’ record of 468 completions in a season, also set in 2011. Manning has 425, so he needs 44.

Another sign of Manning’s greatness is his red-zone performance. Denver is scoring touchdowns on 76.2 percent of its trips inside the 20-yard line, which is the second best rate since 2000, when the league started keeping it.

The Broncos would need to go 5 for 5 on red-zone TDs today to surpass the mark of 77.8 set by Kansas City in 2003.

Vulnerable Broncos

Denver (12-3) should lock up home-field advantage for the playoffs with a win over the lowly Raiders today. However, Denver is hardly a lock to get to the Super Bowl, even in a relatively weak AFC.

The Broncos have not resembled world-beaters since a comfortable, 27-17 win over Kansas City six weeks ago. Since then, they lost to New England, squeaked past the Chiefs and Tennessee (in overtime), lost to San Diego and whipped Houston, 37-13. But Denver led the 2-13 Texans only 16-13 entering the fourth quarter last week.

Denver’s defense ranks 22nd in yards allowed and points allowed. Edge rusher Von Miller is done for the year with a knee injury.

A team that can control the ball and convert third downs on Denver’s secondary can make things scary for Denver. San Diego did that two weeks ago, keeping possession for 38:30.

Pro Bowl snubs

The biggest Pro Bowl snub on defense was the fact the New York Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson didn’t make the top six at defensive end. I’d rate Wilkerson either second or third among defensive ends, up there with St. Louis’ Robert Quinn and Houston’s J.J. Watt. The other DE’s in the Pro Bowl are Carolina’s Greg Hardy, New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan, Bufalo’s Mario Williams and Miami’s Cameron Wake. Based on the opinions of scouts I’ve polled, I’d put Williams fifth on the list of guys that made it and Wake sixth, with Wilkerson ahead of both.

Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus has a legitimate beef that he didn’t make the top six at defensive tackle. It’s hard to argue with Tampa’s Gerald McCoy, Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh, San Francisco’s Justin Smith and Buffalo’s Kyle Williams on the team. But Dareus was better than Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata, who was banged up this year, and Kansas City’s Dontari Poe. On the other hand, Buffalo is 6-9. To the victors go the spoils.

It’s hard to make the Pro Bowl at inside linebacker, and there’s no argument with the four guys who made it ahead of Buffalo’s Kiko Alonso. San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict all are great, and there’s no shame for Alonso in being behind those guys.

The fact Alonso led the fan voting meant little. The votes of the players and coaches almost always trump the fan votes (they count one-third each.)

Onside kicks

• With 248 passing yards today at Kansas City, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck will have the most by any QB over the first two seasons of a career.

• It will be interesting to see how Miami’s offensive coaches try to rebound today against the Jets. Miami faces the same kind of O-line/D-line mismatch against New York as it faced against the Bills last week. Miami should try to run more, stay patient and wait for Geno Smith to turn the ball over.

• Chicago’s Marc Trestman won’t win the Coach of the Year honor but he should get some kind of award if he can find a way for his team to beat Green Bay and make the playoffs today. Chicago’s 5.4 yards per rush allowed is the worst by an NFL team since the 1961 Minnesota Vikings. Nothing about the matchup suggests the Bears should beat the Packers.


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