| The Detroit News
At times, it feels like the only positive thing about the Detroit Lions this season has been their special teams. Jack Fox has been the NFL’s best punter, bolstered by the strong play of the coverage units, and Matt Prater continues to be one of the game’s most-reliable kickers, despite a couple long-distance misses to start the year.
But things could be even better if only return man Jamal Agnew would get some opportunities.
An All-Pro as a rookie, and coming off a season where he had both a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown, opponents are largely avoiding giving Agnew the chance to do damage this year, particularly with punts.
Through four games, he’s only been able to bring back two, which he admits has been frustrating.
“It’s actually really frustrating, noticing throughout the year guys and teams trying not to kick it to me,” Agnew said. “But, thankfully, I have Leon Washington here, obviously a great returner throughout his career in the league. …He always preaches to me, ‘Just be patient, those opportunities are going to come.'”
Washington in his second season with the Lions as a coaching intern. A prolific return man during his playing career, he’s tied for the most kickoff return touchdowns in NFL history, bringing back eight to the house from 2006-14.
“He definitely pushes me,” Agnew said. “We talk back and forth a little bit. I keep telling him I’m going to catch him. I’m going to catch him. But, it’s just going to take time. I got to make the smart play, make the great decisions and it’ll come.”
Agnew has four return touchdowns, three on punts, through his first three seasons with the Lions. And on the two punts he’s been able to return this year, he’s come close to adding another, returning them 16 and 19 yards, respectively.
“We want to have it dialed up perfectly every time, but we’ve got a little bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card with him, where he can cover up some mistakes just with his natural ability,” special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs. “He’s been close a lot in the limited opportunities we’ve had. I think the big thing right now with him and with myself is being patient, not trying to force it.
“We’ve just got to let the game come to us,” Coombs said. “He’s got to let the game come to him. But certainly, we have a lot of confidence in him, in his ability, and really, like I say a lot, it takes all 11 guys. So, he’s been close, but I like to say we’ve been close in the return game. We’ve had multiple plays, really, where we’ve had 10 guys do it exactly the way we want it done. It just takes one guy to let his man free or to not sustain his block quite as long as we need him to, and that guy’s able to trip up the returner and stop us from potentially scoring.”
It’s looking like that patience might have to extend another week. This Sunday’s opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars, have done a good job preventing punt returns. Of the 17 times they’ve booted it away this season, only four have resulted in returns.