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Special teams have been rock-solid for Bills

Danny Crossman doesn’t take offense to the Buffalo Bills’ special teams being called boring.

It’s actually a compliment for the team’s fifth-year coordinator.

“The first key to winning games is not beating yourself,” Crossman said Thursday. “With the way we are trying to win games – which is the only thing that matters – I don't care what we're doing in terms of numbers, if what we're trying to get done is helping the team win.”

By and large, though, the numbers are actually pretty good. The Bills finished 10th overall in Football Outsiders’ special-teams rankings in the regular season, up from No. 22 a year ago. The analytics website ranks special teams by estimating how many points, compared to the league average, each team receives from the five elements: Field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns.

“From a week in and week out consistency basis, I definitely think it's an improved unit,” Crossman said. “The biggest thing is, we had a good nucleus of guys to start with. That set a nice tone through training camp and the initial part of the season.”

That nucleus has gone through some changes. Safety Colt Anderson went on injured reserve after breaking his arm in Week 4, and didn’t return until the season finale. Players like safety Shamarko Thomas and cornerback Lafayette Pitts developed into core contributors despite joining the 53-man roster midway through the season.

“As the season's progressed, we've had a lot of guys that we've had to add with roster turnover, injury and stuff,” Crossman said. “But a lot of that nucleus, even if the guys aren't playing, like Taiwan Jones, and now Andre Holmes, and for a long stretch Colt Anderson, that commitment and the belief in the room of how things are being done, I think those new guys came in and did a nice job adapting and filling in and continuing what we had going early in the season.”

Crossman is the lone survivor on former coach Rex Ryan’s staff after Sean McDermott took over in January. He predates Ryan, too, having been hired in 2013 by Doug Marrone.

“Danny's a very detailed coach. He's been around the league, and that was important for me as a first-time head coach that I had someone in that seat, in that role, that has been there and done that before and done it well,” McDermott said of why he stuck with Crossman. “Danny's very detailed in his approach with the research he does leading up to the game, preparing our players in a very thorough way. I think that goes a long way in terms of being in position, being aware of different schemes and to expect the unexpected at times.”

Crossman and McDermott had never worked together before this season, but had a mutual respect.

“To be able to continue after being here in this community for a couple years – where we want this thing to go, to be able to stay and be part of that was big,” Crossman said. “Sean's a guy that I've had a lot of respect for, so to be able to work with him now has been phenomenal. It’s been good all across the board, to be able to stay, to be able to work with somebody I had great respect for and to be able to continue working in this community, with this team.”

All the way back to training camp, McDermott made sure to put a heavy focus on special teams.

“He puts the same emphasis on special teams as he does offense and defense,” Anderson said. “So when we're out there, we're trying to do our job and trying to flip the field position and get good field position for our offense or defense. Practice time, meeting time, we’re never shorted. Then coach Danny does a great job of getting us in the right position and letting us play fast.”

The results show that:

• The Bills ranked tied for 13th in made field goals, with newcomer Stephen Hauschka hitting 29. Hauschka was also perfect on extra points (29 of 29) and did not have a field goal blocked.

• Buffalo ranked fifth in opponent punt return average, allowing just 5.5 yards per attempt.

“We don't get caught up in all the statistics,” punter Colton Schmidt said. “I'm just trying to hit a good ball for the game. Field position, what the game plan is, there's all sorts of different variables. The stats are so black and white for what really could transpire in the game.”

• Penalties weren’t an issue – until Week 17. The Bills took three penalties against the Dolphins, which Crossman said “basically is as many as we had had all season.”

“It’s been a good job by the players of understanding of how the game is being called, and how the game fundamentally has to be played,” Crossman said.

If there is one area the Bills could improve, it’s in explosive plays. The team failed to return a kickoff or punt for a touchdown.

“I’m never going to be completely satisfied,” Crossman said. “Would I like to be more dynamic with big plays? Absolutely, but I like the fact we’re doing a lot of good things.”

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