For our final segment of the positional grading series, we will take a look at the performance of the Arizona Cardinals' special teams in 2011. Last time, you the reader graded the play of the secondary. As of now, that grade is tied, with both 'C' and 'D' garnering 32% of the vote. Either way you look at it, they were not spectacular and there is plenty of room for improvement.
The special teams unit played a bit better, though. After the jump, let's take a look at some of the key players on special teams and then assign them a grade.
Let's start with what is perhaps the most important player on special teams -- the kicker. Jay Feely has been apart of the Cardinals for the past two seasons and is now listed as an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with any team he chooses. Feely started off a bit slow, but he seemed to pick up some steam going into the latter parts of the season.
Overall, Feely made 19 of his 24 field goal attempts. He missed two from the 30-39 yard range, two from 40-49 yards out and another one from beyond 50 yards. His kickoffs were also solid, netting an average distance of 70 yards. The price that the team will have to pay him will truly determine whether or not he returns to the team next season.
Feely's counterpart, Dave Zastudil, was very effective for the team as a punter. He averaged around 45 yards per punt, with a long of 66 yards. He did not have quite the same ability that Ben Graham did in terms of pinning the opposing team within their own 10 yard line, but his hangtime and kicking distance were far superior. He is also an unrestricted free agent, so it will be interesting to see if the team chooses to go a younger route or if they re-sign Zastudil.
LaRod Stephens-Howling was not quite as good as he has been in years past. As the team's primary kick returner, LaSH was only able to average 23.7 yards per return, according to Pro Football Focus. He was unable to take any kickoffs back for touchdowns this season, but much of that is due to the kickoff spot being moved from the 30 to the 35 yard line.
There were quite a few touchbacks and coverage teams were able to get down the field quicker. LaSH's longest return in 2011 was only 37 yards. He is a restricted free agent and will be tendered an offer, but his return is not as sure as it once was.
Punt returns are where the Cardinals really excelled, mainly due to the young phenom, Patrick Peterson. Peterson was able to tie an NFL record with four punt returns for touchdowns in just his rookie season. All four of those returns were more than 80 yards, one coming from 99 yards back. His average return was about 16 yards, which was about the same as all-time great return man, Devin Hester. Peterson will be the team's punt returner for the foreseeable future, as he is a natural talent at the position.
Some of the standout players in terms of the coverage aspect of special teams were Hamza Abdullah, O'Brien Schofield, Stewart Bradley and Pro Bowl nominee, Reggie Walker. Abdullah and Schofield each registered 11 tackles and provided great coverage with their ability to fly down the field. Bradley had 9 tackles and was a powerful force in punting situations. Walker had 8 tackles and excelled on kickoff opportunities.
The lowlights were mainly players that incurred a lot of penalties on special teams. Michael Adams and A.J. Jefferson each racked up four penalties. In total, 26 flags were thrown against the Cardinals on special teams. They allowed only one touchdown, which came on an 88 yard punt return by Nick Miller of the St. Louis Rams in week 12.
Taking in the fact that the Cards allowed just one touchdown, while scoring four themselves on special teams, I give the special teams a B+. They were pretty good on coverage most of the time, Zastudil was surprisingly effective as the team's new punter and Peterson was amazing. Feely was decent and Stephens-Howling was not as large of a factor as he has been in the past, so I can't give them an 'A'.
What grade would you give the special teams unit, Cardinals fans? Tell us what you think in the comments section and vote in the poll.