Niyo: Lions’ special teams unit lived up to its name at Arizona

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

The Lions played like Weebles last weekend.

But that’s just the way their coaches want them to play. Weebles wobble, you might remember, but they don’t fall down.

And even when Lions did get knocked over Sunday at Arizona, they got up — and quickly — when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter.

It’s a play you might’ve noticed in the moment, but one most Lions fans likely didn’t remember for long. Yet it’s the sort of special-teams work that often makes the difference between a win and a loss in the NFL, where the so-called “hidden yardage” is arguably more valuable now than ever.

And it’s the sort of effort that head coach Matt Patricia has been talking about, ad nauseam, from the time he arrived in Detroit.

With just under 10 minutes to play in a game the Lions trailed, 23-20, rookie punter Jack Fox stood at his own 40-yard line as he received a snap from Don Muhlbach. His booming kick landed at the Arizona 4, bounced twice and was cradled by gunner Tony McRae at the 2-yard line, pinning the Cardinals deep and flipping the field for the Lions.

But it wasn’t as easy as the McRae made it look. While running downfield on the coverage unit, McRae got planted face-first into the turf at the 15-yard line by a questionable block from the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson. Yet he managed to get back on his feet to be in position to make the play, just as the Lions’ other gunner, Jamal Agnew, got clobbered by a near-blindside hit from Arizona’s Byron Murphy.

“I think that play really exemplifies what we want to be about,” said Brayden Coombs, the Lions’ special teams coordinator. “For a guy to get knocked down — get flattened, really — and we talk all the time about, ‘You’re gonna get knocked down. How quick are you back on your feet?’”

Winning plays

Quick enough to make a play? Fast enough to make a difference in the game?

In McRae’s case, the answer was yes on both counts, setting the stage for the Lions’ fourth-quarter comeback and, ultimately, Matt Prater’s game-winning field goal as time expired. And for Coombs, the rookie coordinator whose special-teams units have been a bright spot for the Lions thus far — ranked No. 3 in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics — it was one of several highlights from this week’s film review.

It was also no surprise, because he’s the reason why McRae is on the Lions’ roster. A fifth-year pro who went undrafted out of college, McRae spent the last three seasons as a core special-teams player in Cincinnati, where Coombs was the assistant coordinator for a unit that ranked as the league’s best last season along with New Orleans.

“Those are the kind of plays that don’t necessarily loom large on the stat sheet, but the culture that we’re trying to build, the attitude that we’re trying to play with — those kind of things are huge,” Coombs said. “Tony’s a leader for us. So when your leaders are doing those kind of things, it starts to bleed over into everybody else. When we get 11 guys playing every single play with that sort of relentless effort and toughness, that’s when we can really start to peak.”

Don’t look for Coombs to say it now, but the Lions are playing winning football in at least one phase this season. Fox leads the NFL in net punting average (51.1 yards) — “He’s kicking the crap out of the ball,” Prater said — and opponents are averaging just 2 yards per return. Meanwhile, the Lions lead the league in that category, albeit with only two returns. One of those, though, was Agnew’s 19-yarder to set up the winning drive late in the fourth quarter Sunday. Conversely, the Cardinals’ average starting field position for their 10 offensive possessions was their own 19-yard line.

Again, that’s the hidden yardage that adds up to victories more often than you might realize. It’s also a glimpse of the progress Patricia insists he sees from his team where others might not.

“There’s a lot of those plays in there that we put in the ‘smart football’ category,” Patricia said. “Guys being able to finish the plays and the details of the job — I think that’s what really separates some of those big plays and some of the game-situation stuff that…helps us win.

“Certainly the effort on some of the coverage guys — especially those guys out there running down the punt — I thought that was outstanding. Those guys got knocked down, got back up, they finished.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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