The Buffalo Bills’ special teams took the biggest step forward of any team in the NFL in 2017.
The Bills finished tied for seventh overall in Rick Gosselin’s annual rankings of the league’s 32 special-teams units, an increase of 17 spots from their No. 24 finish in 2016. Gosselin’s rankings, which are compiled by assigning points based on a team’s finish in 22 kicking game categories, are accepted as the league standard. Teams earn one point for finishing first in the league and 32 points for finishing last.
Buffalo had a total of 309.5 points in 2017. The Los Angeles Rams led the league with 196.5 points, the first time a team has ever finished with fewer than 200 points in Gosselin’s 14 years of compiling them.
Gosselin pointed to the addition of kicker Stephen Hauschka as being one of the main reasons for Buffalo’s rise. Hauschka went 29 of 33 on field goals, including an NFL-leading seven makes from 50-plus yards. He also hit every one of his 29 extra points, helping the Bills finish as one of six teams with a 100 percent conversion rate.
“As I always say, that's the one play in football where it's designed strictly to score points,” special teams coordinator Danny Crossman said prior to the Bills’ playoff game of Hauschka’s success on field goals. “Until they change the rules and it's not the team with the most points that wins, every time we roll him on the field, we've got to come away with points. So he's been outstanding.”
The Bills were also one of nine teams to finish without having a kick or punt blocked. The line deserves credit for that, as does long snapper Reid Ferguson, who was flawless in his first season on the job.
“He's worked hard,” Crossman said. “We had the great advantage of being able to spend some time with him a year ago, and those guys did a great job.”
As evidenced by the crazy amount of snow that fell in the Week 14 game against the Colts, playing special teams in Buffalo is a greater challenge that some other NFL cities. Crossman has his specialists, including punter Colton Schmidt, work outside as much as possible, regardless of the elements.
“Everybody knows you really never know what you're going to get,” he said. “It doesn't matter what it says, it doesn't matter what it's doing now. An hour from now, it could be something completely different, so the more you can work in every situation, it's going to pay off in the end. I think with both those guys, along with Colton, we were able to overcome some of those bad-weather situations and still be productive.”
The Bills were one of 10 teams who did not give up any touchdowns on special teams, and one of 13 who did not commit any giveaways. Conversely, they were one of eight teams that failed to block a kick and one of 17 who did not score a touchdown.
Punter Colton Schmidt’s strong hang times also helped the Bills’ coverage unit give up just 5.5 yards per return, which ranked fifth in the league. Schmidt rebounded from a mediocre 2016 season to post a 40.5 net punting average and place 28 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, tied for 15th most in the NFL.
“The key is not putting yourself in bad positions, not beating yourself,” Crossman said. “That's one of the things he's done a nice job of. With punting, your biggest nemesis is your bad balls. You want to manage what is a bad ball. Everybody looks at it differently, but that's the key. Those bad balls can't really hurt you.”
In five seasons under Crossman, the Bills’ special teams have finished 31st, second, 16th, 24th and now seventh in Gosselin’s rankings.
“From a week in and week out consistency basis, I definitely think it was an improved unit,” Crossman said.
Lorenzo Alexander and Shamarko Thomas tied for the team lead with nine special teams tackles each, while Deon Lacey and Joe Webb had eight each.
“The biggest thing is, we had a good nucleus of guys to start with,” Crossman said. “That set a nice tone through training camp and the initial part of the season. As the season progressed, we had a lot of guys we had to add with roster turnover, with injury and such. … 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 of adapting and filling in and continuing what we had going early in the season.”