The Buffalo Bills have dominated the third phase of the game during their four-game winning streak.
The Bills’ special-teams units have quietly been flawless, providing a nice complement to an offense that is running the ball at will and a defense that is keeping teams out of the end zone.
“When you have all three phases clicking the way we are, it’s hard to lose,” safety Duke Williams said after the Bills’ 45-16 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at New Era Field.
According to rankings kept by the website Football Outsiders, the Bills ranked No. 12 in the NFL on special teams through the first five weeks of the season, but that is likely to rise into the top 10 after Sunday’s win. The Bills were nearly flawless against the 49ers, with the highlight for the special teams coming in the fourth quarter, when cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman forced a fumble on a kickoff return by the 49ers’ Keshawn Martin, with safety Jonathan Meeks scooping it up for the Bills.
“I mean, that’s huge,” said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who in addition to his starring role on defense also plays on coverage and return units. “Special teams are the body punches and that really set our offense up to go in and to continue to run the ball and put some points on the board. So anytime you can have turnovers on special teams, your chances of winning to way up.”
The Bills also got a touchdown in a Week Three win against Arizona when Aaron Williams recovered a botched field-goal snap and raced 53 yards to the end zone.
“That’s a phase of the game that could potentially cause a win or a loss,” Meeks said. “We want to win field-position battles, we want to create turnovers, we want to get good plays in on special teams. We’ve been doing that. The stats have been proving that.”
In particular, the Bills’ coverage units have been on point. The team has given up the fewest punt-return yards in the NFL, just 31 on 10 returns. The kickoff-coverage unit, meanwhile, is giving up 19.1 yards per return, which ranks tied for ninth in the league heading into Monday night’s game between the Jets and Cardinals.
“We’ve been selling out on coverage,” Meeks said. “If they bring the kickoff out, we want to try and make them pay for it.”
The new touchback rule has created all sort of uncertainty for the Bills’ opponents. In Week Four at New England, the Patriots’ Cyrus Jones made a pair of bad decisions to bring kickoffs out of the end zone instead of just taking the touchback, which brings the ball out to the 25-yard line this season. On Sunday, the 49ers’ Torrey Smith fielded a kickoff 2 yards into the end zone and brought it out before getting stopped at the San Francisco 11-yard line.
“It’s playing into our hands, the new rule,” Williams said. “They don’t know if they want to get the ball at the 25 or create yards on their own. That gray area gives us time to make plays. We’re not going to kick the ball deep through the end zone and give them an easy way out. We want to kick it into that gray area and make them make a play. That plays right into our hands, because we have great gunners on special teams.”
If there had been a weakness on special teams, it was kicker Dan Carpenter’s performance in the first five weeks. He missed two extra points and two field goals over that time, but rebounded Sunday to knock in all six of his extra-point attempts and a 40-yard field goal.
Punter Colton Schmidt ranks 14th in the league in net average at 40.3 yards, while his 10 punts inside the 20-yard line is tied for 13th.
Alexander and newcomer Ramon Humber are tied for the team lead with five special-teams tackles, while Robey-Coleman (three tackles Sunday) and safety Robert Blanton are next. Humber is playing 69 percent of the special-teams snaps, while Alexander is at 66 percent and Meeks is at 64 percent.
Should the performance of the first six weeks continue, the Bills stand a good chance of improving on their 16th-place finish in the Dallas Morning News’ special-teams rankings last season, which are accepted as the league standard.
“We’re getting coached up well” by Danny Crossman, Meeks said. “It’s been a lot of growth and maturity.”
That has shown itself in the lack of maddening special-teams penalties. While there is still a flag here or there, it’s nothing like last season – when every special-teams play felt like it featured a block in the back or some other infraction.
“It’s just playing smarter,” Williams said. “Guys are holding each other accountable for those mistakes. If we can continue to do that and build, I think the special teams unit can be a strength for our team. If you can get stops, create turnovers on special teams, it makes it easier for the offense and defense. The defense gets rest and the offense gets great field position. It all works hand in hand.”