Seattle Seahawks

Starters, effort make Seahawks’ special teams just that

Seattle Seahawks coverage unit stops Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Lucky Whitehead during a punt return in the second quarter of a preseason game at CenturyLink Field Aug. 25.
Seattle Seahawks coverage unit stops Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Lucky Whitehead during a punt return in the second quarter of a preseason game at CenturyLink Field Aug. 25. jbessex@gateline.com

When special teams coach Brian Schneider heard that Doug Baldwin had signed a $46 million contract, he texted the Seahawks receiver his congratulations.

“The first thing he does is get back to me, saying: ‘Don’t take me off punt return,’ ” Schneider said. “That tells you a lot about these guys and how important this is to them.”

On some NFL teams, stars and starters are loathe to participate on coverage and return units, seeing the work as an afterthought to their offensive or defensive duties. It means extra meetings, additional effort, and greater exposure to high-speed collisions.

But in Seattle, even the All-Pros and veteran positional starters come to Schneider and ask to be part of kicking and punting units.

Is that customary around the NFL?

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“No, it’s not normal,” said Heath Farwell, a Seahawks assistant coach and a former Pro Bowl special teams player. “Usually they’re begging to get off special teams. But people here love playing for Brian and know how important it is.”

The results are obvious. Since 2010, Schneider’s first year in Seattle, the Seahawks special teams lead the NFL in touchdowns and safeties scored (13), are second in takeaways (14) and third in blocked kicks (14).

Combine their standings for field-goal percentage and gross-punt average, and the Seahawks were fourth-best in the league in 2015, with Steven Hauschka (29 of 31 on field goals) and Jon Ryan (45.7 yards per punt).

Individually, returner Tyler Lockett was first-team All-Pro. Hauschka had a streak of 19 straight made field goals, and Ryan continued to be one of the most consistent situational punters in the league.

“It’s huge to have those guys out there,” said Mike Morgan, linebacker and core special teams player. “I look around at other teams, and I don’t see their starting safeties on the kickoff team like Kam (Chancellor) and Earl (Thomas), who are out there all the time. And not just running down the field, they’re out there making tackles and trying to hit somebody.”

Asked if concern over the physical welfare of starters used on special teams was ever an internal debate for the staff, Schneider said it has never been a point of discussion.

“To us, a football play is a football play, whether it’s offense or defense or a special teams play,” Schneider said. “The one thing that comes into play is that you don’t want them doing too much; you can’t be a starter and also a core (special teams) member, because you’d start losing something then.”

All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman is sometimes on punt returns along with Baldwin, and linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright sit in on all the special teams meetings — even if they’re not on the depth chart with some units.

The message it sends, Schneider said, resonates across the roster.

“You look at a lot of rookies, they don’t understand the value of special teams,” Schneider said. “They’re coming from college teams where they were the star player and maybe never even played on special teams. But they get here and I can point to Kam or Earl or Sherm or Doug and say, look at those guys. They make such a great example.”

Schneider established a list of 12 weekly goals for his special teams, and No. 1 is the most important to special teams’ success: Effort.

“That’s the No. 1 thing we talk about and it’s the first thing we evaluate,” Schneider said. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have much of a chance. There’s times when we don’t get 100 percent effort, and we have to point out why. If I don’t talk about that part of it every day, I’m not doing my job.”

Morgan said the coverage and return schemes are pretty simple, with success based on winning one-on-one matchups and outworking the opponent.

While fans tend to think of the kicking game as a lesser portion of the overall game experience, Farwell pointed out how significantly it fits into the way the Seahawks approach the game.

“This team is built on running the ball and playing great defense — field position,” he said. “Special teams are all about field position. If we can pin them back there with a punt and make them go 80 or 90 yards against our defense, that’s not going to happen. And if we can have a big return, then our offense doesn’t have to go as far.”

Players came up with the idea of a weekly special teams award named for recently retired special teams ace Ricardo Lockette, who suffered a serious neck injury against Dallas last season.

“It really honors ‘Lock’ and what he brought to our team,” Schneider said. “We’re going to name the guy every week who represents our whole philosophy, doing it right and playing hard.”

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