Are Special Teams The Special Sauce For The Raiders?
By Bess Shapiro
As the Oakland Raiders work to build an effective pass rush and repair an injury plagued offense, a short field may well make the difference between winning and losing or at least staying competitive in 2013. How important are special teams to the Raiders’ success? In its season opener last year, Oakland had three botched snaps that led to nine points in a 22-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers.
Last season, Oakland had arguably two of the best special teams players in the NFL in punter Shane Lechler and kicker Sebastian Janikowski. But Raider Nation wouldn’t know it from a team that couldn’t cover a punt let alone return one. The Raiders finished dead last in punt return yardage and kickoff coverage last season.
The coaching staff is thoroughly aware of these issues. Head coach Dennis Allen said that aspect of the game was the quickest path to improvement for the team. “I think the linebackers, the secondary, the tight ends, those are all areas we can improve our football team through special teams.”
Oakland needs its strongest special teams players to stay healthy and must replace what it has lost. The Raiders’ bad snaps in last year’s opener occurred after Pro Bowl long snapper Jon Condo suffered a concussion. Condo has recovered, and the Raiders also have brought back Nick Guess and added undrafted rookie free agent Adam Steiner to their long-snapping rotation.
After losing Lechler to the Texans via free agency, the Raiders wisely picked up free agent Chris Kluwe from the Minnesota Vikings. Kluwe isn’t Lechler, but he is still a heck of a punter who had an average of 45 yards per kick last season. He also had the highest net punting average of his career (39.7 yards).
As for coverage, the Raiders need to rethink the entire unit. It showed little more than the eight tackles by tight end Richard Gordon and seven stops by running back Taiwan Jones. Oakland needs to consider some strong safeties, and perhaps rookie Nick Kasa, a former defensive end-turned-tight end, as a cover man. He is a good blocker with great strength. Former Cleveland Browns linebacker Kaluka Maiava would also be effective. Maiava had 4½ sacks and five forced fumbles in his four seasons with Cleveland.
On the return front, the Raiders are happy that wide receiver Jacoby Ford, who was their most explosive return man before he got hurt, will be back. Ford, 25, missed all of last season with a Lisfranc foot injury. Former Browns WR Josh Cribbs, who was signed earlier this month, is also part of the mix. He has speed and the ability to weave, making tacklers miss. According to Levi Damien of silverandblackpride.com, only three players have returned three kicks for touchdowns in a single season, and Ford and Cribbs are two of them: http://www.silverandblackpride.com/2013/5/20/4350576/jacoby-ford-returns-with-all-pro-company-josh-cribbs-oakland-raiders
But Cribbs needs to get healthy. He is still recovering from a knee injury and has not been able to finish practice during OTAs. He’s expected to be ready for training camp. With either Kluwe or Janikowski as the leader, Oakland’s special teams can give the Raiders the spark they need.