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Cardinals’ 2019 Special Teams Discussion

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It was a nifty maneuver for the Cardinals to retain Jeff Rodgers, the ST coordinator who upgraded the unit’s performance in every aspect except placekicking. From the bottom of the league in 2017 to 5th in 2018.

P:

Andy Lee is performing at an All-Pro level. At 36, he is showing no signs of regression, as evidenced by his 48.6 yard average in 2018. Plus, he is about as good a punter as there is in dropping punts inside the 20. Thanks to a two-year extension he signed last June, he is under contract with the Cardinals through the 2020 season.

LS:

Aaron Brewer is solid and steady—-and he likes to get downfield and mix it up in punt coverage. Brewer is 28 and is under contract through 2021.

K:

Zane Gonzalez seemed to settle down late in the season as the team’s kicker. A nagging groin injury, plus two crucial missed field goals early in the season, caused his release from the Cleveland Browns. At 23 he appears to have a bright future in Arizona. He made 7 of 9 field goals (both misses were beyond 50 yards) and 5 of 6 on extra points. Of his 19 kickoffs, 12 were touchbacks and the 7 returns averaged a paltry 20.3. On the third year of a rookie contract at $645K a year, the Cardinals are saving millions less than what they were paying Phil Dawson.

PR:

The Cardinals have three legitimate home run threats as punt returners. Pharoh Cooper heads into his 4th season with a Pro-Bowl under his belt and a 2017 All-Pro award. For the Cardinals late last season he returned 6 punts for 67 yards, for an average of 11.2. Most of that was gained on a breathtaking 65 yard return he had versus the Seahawks in Week 17.

Christian Kirk broke away for a 44 yard punt return earlier in the season and finished with 169 yards on 21 returns for a 7.8 average.

Patrick Peterson ripped off a 16 yard punt return last year and looked more aggressive on that occasion. He finished the season with a 7.1 average on 9 returns.

KOR:

It took a while for the coaches to see that Brandon Williams was not the answer as the kickoff return man. He averaged 19.2 yards per 10 returns. After T.J. Logan took over, the unit improved. He averaged 24.7 yards on 12 returns with a long of 36.

Punt and Kickoff Coverage:

The coverage units were improved in 2018. The kickoff return coverage held opponents to a mere 21.4 yards per return, while the punt coverage teams earned a net average of 42.6, holding the opponents’ punt return average to 6 yards.

The standouts in coverage tackles were Zeke Turner (15—tied for 2nd in NFL), Dennis Gardeck (7), Chase Edmonds (7), Joe Walker (7) and Derrick Coleman (7).

The greatest highlight of the coverage teams came on a rare punt block TD—-the type of which we haven’t seen in years—-thanks to DE Cameron Malveaux’s block and LB Dennis Gardeck’s recovery in the end zone. Here it is:

The auspicious news for the Cardinals is Jeff Rodgers returning as ST coordinator and all three specialists (Lee, Brewer, Gonzalez), the top return men (Cooper, Kirk, Logan, Peterson) and four of the top ST tacklers (Turner, Gardeck, Walker, Edmonds), plus the punt blocker (Malveaux). Rodgers’ turning of the Cardinals’ once woeful STs into a strength has been an encouraging development.