Seattle Seahawks

Injuries on overlooked special teams having a prominent effect on Seahawks

It’s punting time. Or kickoff time.

Or, otherwise seen as time for a trip to the refrigerator or the bathroom or the concession stand, right?

Part of the reason special teams are so overlooked is because relatively few people are looking at them. But they are largely why the Seahawks spared themselves losing last weekend to winless Oakland. And injuries to front-liners on them — and the corresponding employment of first-time fill-ins who have compounded mistakes — are why Seattle has dropped in NFL rankings in five of six statistical categories on special teams.

Linebacker Mike Morgan plays on every one of Seattle’s special teams — except the field-goal unit that is dominated by linemen. Don’t tell him special teams don’t matter.

Heck, they were part of the reason why the Seahawks won last season’s Super Bowl. Seattle thinks so much of special teams it puts two All-Pros on them; Earl Thomas is on kickoffs and Richard Sherman has done punt returns.

Special teams are part of explanation for the Seahawks starting 3-3, part of why they are now 5-3 and two games out of the NFC West lead.

“The thing about special teams is, people don’t know how important this is until you mess up or you make a big play,” Morgan said before heading out early Wednesday afternoon for — you guessed it — special-teams practice.

The problem has been starters who usually play on the kick teams have been hurt far more than they were last season. So Seattle’s kicking units have been more inexperienced, more mistake-prone, resulting in far less advantageous field position this season.

But when Kam Chancellor, Jeron Johnson, Malcolm Smith, Jeremy Lane, core guys on Seattle’s special-teams units, were out injured for last weekend’s game against Oakland their replacements became a larger part of the game than the Seahawks wanted.

Undrafted rookie Brock Coyle was the up back on the punt-coverage team. He missed his block, and it resulted in Oakland blocking Jon Ryan’s punt for the touchdown that got the Raiders back in the game in the third quarter last weekend.

That same punt-coverage team dotted with fill-ins allowed a 27-yard punt return to the Seahawks’ 30-yard line later in that quarter. That set up Oakland for another touchdown. The dual special-teams breakdowns turned Seattle’s 24-3 lead into a 24-17 slog.

Just as special teams gave away most of that lead, they also preserved what was left of it.

Jermaine Kearse, an undrafted free agent from Lakes High School and the University of Washington, has risen to the No. 2 wide receiver for the Super Bowl champions. How did he get there? By wowing the Seahawks on special teams.

Even now, Kearse and Doug Baldwin are the Seahawks’ top two wide receivers — and both are on special teams. Baldwin was the team’s punt returner last week, though Seattle has since re-signed Bryan Walters to do that job Sunday against the New York Giants.

Last weekend Kearse played 33 percent of special-teams snaps and made two of the biggest plays of the game. He forced a fumble on a Raiders kickoff return. Then when Sebastian Janikowski executed a tricky, high-hop onside kick that had bounced off Seattle’s Cooper Helfet with 47 seconds left, Kearse secured the fumble under the first dogpile he said he has ever been in to seal the Seahawks’ 30-24 victory.

“That’s why Coach Carroll has a lot of linebackers and DBs on special teams,” Morgan said, “because those are the guys who can make plays.”

When they are healthy enough to be on the field, that is.

The Seahawks were second in the NFL last season in punt-return yardage allowed. This season they are dead last at No. 32. They have dropped 10 ranking spots since last season, to 29th, in net punting. They are 10 spots lower in net punting average allowed, nine places lower in punt-return average.

That’s not all on the punters and returners. Better blocking and tackle would help, too.

Those so-called “lost yards” can often mean lost games.

“Injuries have definitely affected it,” Morgan said. “You know, for the past four years that I’ve been here it’s pretty much been the same guys in there. And this year we’ve had a little more injuries than normal, so it’s definitely affected it.”

Carroll said his team might have four or as many as eight injured players back for Sunday’s game against the New York Giants, including Johnson, Chancellor and Lane for the kicking game. Will that alone make Seattle’s special teams more special again?

Lane possibly coming back Sunday from a groin injury gives Seattle back its premier “gunner” on the outside to cover punts.

“Well, we’re a long way back on the core guys’ thing. We hope to (get better),” Carroll said of his special teams. “They’ll get better. Jeron is a big deal to us coming back (from a concussion).

“If you notice there are a couple guys who played in the game last week that aren’t even here right now.”

Steven Terrell, L.J. Fort and Terrance Parks — all recently off the practice squad — combined for a total of 44 special-teams snaps against Oakland.

They were all cut within three days after the game.

“We’ve had no choice. You just do the best you can,” Carroll said. “That’s why we know we can get better.

“Those guys that were in there for the first time with big assignments will get better this week. They’ll feel more comfortable and they’ll play faster and they’ll be more aggressive because of that.”

Kearse, himself only in his third season, said he has to harp on some younger Seahawks to view special teams as important as offense and defense.

“There are some guys you have to tell,” Kearse said. “You have guys who were the top guys on their college teams and then they get here then they expect to not play on special teams.

“But, I mean, we’ve got starters everywhere that play on special teams. We’ve got Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas playing on kickoff. We’ve got Richard Sherman playing on punt return.”

And, hey, there’s money to be made in it.

Morgan looks at Heath Farwell, the 10-year veteran special-teams captain whose two torn groin muscles in August forced him into semi-retirement. The Seahawks so value his leadership and experience on special teams they put him on injured reserve instead of giving him an injury settlement and letting him go home. That’s allowed him to become an injured player-coach for special teams this season.

Farwell made the Pro Bowl in 2010 for special-teams excellence with Minnesota. He made $7.5 million with the Vikings. He’s collecting the final months of his three-year contract with Seattle that will net him a total of $3.75 million more, plus a $500,000 signing bonus.

That’s a lot of money playing while you are at the fridge.

“To stick in the league? I mean, look at Heath. Heath’s made a living with special teams. He’s been in the league for … 20 years,” Morgan said, doubling Farwell’s actual career length to make a point. “So of course it’s big.

“People on the outside, they don’t realize that. But there are guys who make a great living off special teams.”