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Teams fell to middle of pack
DeHaven's coverage units overcame heavy personnel losses

This is the eighth part of a series assessing the Bills' 2010 season. Today's installment deals with special teams.

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How do you top yourself? That's what the Buffalo Bills tried to do on special teams.

Bruce DeHaven returned to Buffalo as special teams coordinator with a tough act to follow in Bobby April, who guided the Bills through arguably the best stretch of special teams play in NFL history.

The Bills ranked in the top four in the NFL each of the previous six seasons and finished No. 1 overall in 2004, 2005 and 2008, according to rankings by the Dallas Morning News, which are recognized by special teams coaches as the league standard.

The Bills took a step back this season, finishing in the middle of the pack in most categories. They ranked 11th covering kickoffs (21.1-yard average) and tied for 20th on punts (9.3). The Bills were solid returning punts (10.5-yard average, tied for 13th in the league). They averaged just 21.1 yards on kickoff returns, but that was due to the opponents not kicking the ball deep.

A lot of teams would accept those numbers, but the Bills hold themselves to a higher standard. That won't change in 2011.

*Positives: Rookie C.J. Spiller had 1,014 kickoff return yards (16th), including a 95-yard touchdown. He finished with a 23-yard average. He made up for Roscoe Parrish's absence on punt returns with a 14.6-yard average that ranked seventh in the league. Only four players had more than Spiller's five punt returns of more than 20 yards.

Leodis McKelvin showed he hadn't lost his touch as a return threat. He had a 78-yard punt return called back by a questionable holding penalty and would have scored on a 97-yard kickoff return in overtime against Pittsburgh if he didn't trip over a teammate blocking for him.

DeHaven's coverage units did a pretty good job of avoiding the bad play. They allowed only two punt returns of 20-plus yards and rarely put the defense in bad spots. The Bills didn't give up a touchdown on kickoff returns. They allowed opponents to start beyond midfield only once and between both 40-yard lines four times.

*Negatives: It's hard to knock punter Brian Moorman on anything because he has been great for most of his career. But he did have a down year by his lofty standards. His 42.4-yard gross average (23rd in the NFL) was the lowest since his rookie year. His 36.6-yard net average (22nd) was well below last season's personal-best of 40.2. It should be noted that a third of his punts were on the opponents' side of the field, where placement is more important than distance. Still, Moorman had just 17 punts downed inside the 20-yard line, the second-lowest total of career and fewest since 2004.

Place-kicker Rian Lindell converted 16 of 21 field goals, but was 2 for 5 outside 50 yards. He had one stretch where he missed three straight field goal tries, including a 53-yarder in overtime during a three-point loss at Kansas City. Lindell also missed his first extra-point attempt in a loss to Chicago, ending a streak of 321 consecutive conversions.

*Outlook: DeHaven did a fine job mixing personnel on coverage units after losing six of the Bills' top 10 special teams tacklers. This group should be stronger if there isn't much turnover. The Bills will have a pleasant decision to make on punt returns with all-time leader Roscoe Parrish returning from injury to try and regain the job from Spiller, who should continue kickoff return duties. Moorman, 34, and Lindell, 33, are getting up in age, but both have plenty of life left in their legs. They'll be motivated to rebound from what were off-years for them.

Next: Coaches/front office

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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