Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Marrone: Return game just waiting for opportunity


At this time last year, the Buffalo Bills' special teams squad was a force to be reckoned with. A year later, it's just a force waiting for a chance to prove it's still got it.

Led by some head-strong runs from cornerback Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo's return game was no joke last season, averaging nearly 19 yards on punts and 28 yards on kickoffs. The team as a whole had three total return touchdowns, including one in prime time during a divisional bout with the Miami Dolphins.

What a difference a year can make.

Now through 11 games, the Bills have yet to tally a return longer than 26 yards, let alone one for a touchdown. McKelvin's average has dropped to 6.3 yards per attempt, while even veteran return man Jim Leonhard has been only able to muster nine yards a try.

We’re low on the opportunities when you look at it," Bills coach Doug Marrone said Monday, via buffalobills.com. "People have not given us the opportunity to return the ball. People have been kicking it out of the end zone and deep. On punts, they’re directional kicking on us, not really trying to change the field and giving us a lot of hang time and pinning us in the corner.

"Strategically I think that when we’re playing teams, they understand that we have two guys back there that can do things well. We’ve just got to find a way to create those opportunities where we can get the ball run."

The Bills have only attempted 14 kickoff returns this season — only the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals have taken the ball out of the end zone less. And as Marrone eluded to, the punt game has been equally as frustrated, with McKelvin and Leonhard combining for 17 fair catches (tied for fifth most). 

While strategy and execution may be playing a key part in Buffalo's return drought, injuries have certainly been the other part. Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, arguably the fastest straight-line runner in the league, missed four games with a hamstring injury, while McKelvin was out in the beginning of the season nursing a hamstring issue of his own.

Now healthier than they have been all season, Buffalo would love nothing more than to get some open field chances and help out an offense still defining itself.

The Bills travel up to the Rogers Centre this weekend to face the Falcons in Toronto. While Atlanta hasn't had too much luck in the return game either, its coverage units have been pretty solid, allowing only 8.3 yards per try on punts and nothing longer than 36 yards on kickoffs.

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