Special teams working to fix mistakes

Chase Blackburn

CHARLOTTE — Somewhere over the Indian Ocean, a butterfly must have flapped its wings in just the wrong way.

Because for the Panthers special teams units, a series of small and unrelated-looking events had a cascading effect that caused some big problems — problems they have to fix in a hurry.

While there were a lot of reasons for a lot of the issues, two of the primary ones boiled down to one mid-week roster move and one in-game injury. Those things, exacerbated by situations in the game, led to some unfortunate special teams play.

"Yeah," Panthers special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn said with a shake of his head. "That's the way it goes. One thing leads to the next. One guy goes down somewhere, and something changes for us."

The first and most obvious problem was the kickoff returns they allowed last week.

Saints returner Deonte Harris is one of the best in the game, but his averaging 31.2 yards per return was excessive, and one of the reasons Panthers head coach Matt Rhule called the special teams "woeful."

While there were some coverage issues, the first problem was that they had to cover at all.

When Joey Slye was the kicker, touchbacks could be assumed. In 2019 and 2020, he combined to bury 137 of 151 kickoffs for touchbacks (90.7 percent). Even when he was replaced, Week 1 kicker Ryan Santoso was 5-of-5 on touchbacks.

But when they opted to go with Zane Gonzalez, they knew they were trading some length for some accuracy (and not having to give up a seventh-round pick to the Giants to keep Santoso around).

Santoso averaged 65.0 yards per kickoff (effectively the goal line every time since you kick off from the 35). Gonzalez averaged 61.7 yards per kickoff, and had no touchbacks in six kickoff attempts, getting one to the goal line and one 3 yards deep, but otherwise short.

Zane Gonzalez

"We knew bringing Zane in here we're not kicking touchbacks," Rhule said earlier this week. "We're going to kick the ball down, inside the 5 and hopefully in the end zone, and we're going to have to cover kicks.

"Maybe we were lulled to sleep by we haven't had to cover kicks. But we have to cover kicks. There's a lot of teams in the NFL that purposely kick the ball down to the goal line and cover, and try to tackle you inside the 25. If we can add elite kickoff coverage to our defense, that'll help us change field position.

"This is one of he things we knew going in, and we chose field goal accuracy over the big leg. So we'll have to cover kicks."

Blackburn said Gonzalez "has the capability" to kick it deeper, and the hope is he will.

"It wasn't a great day, and he knows it," Blackburn said. "He'll work on it and go, and we'll be better this week.

It also means going back to the drawing board for Blackburn and his core group of cover players.

Special teams units are generally like end-of-the-week soup — thrown together from the leftovers. Blackburn's units are mostly made up of backups, once the offense and defense are accounted for. They do have some players who are here primarily for their ability to play special teams, including safety Sean Chandler, wide receiver Brandon Zylstra, linebacker Julian Stanford, and fullback Giovanni Ricci. They'll get another one soon, as trade acquisition Darryl Johnson will likely be active this week, and he was an excellent four-phase (punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return) special teamer for the Bills.

Chase Blackburn, Giovanni Ricci

And Blackburn has been working those guys hard this week, and laying in contingency plans. During Monday night's walk-through, he devoted a good chunk of his work to having backups ready at a number of positions.

"At the end of the day, it's about how players play and how we execute our assignments," Blackburn said. "Obviously, we didn't execute at a high level the other day; we need better kicks. But at the end of the day, we have to execute our assignments and get to the ball and swarm tackle.

"Because it can be a weapon for us too. You've seen around the league; there are guys who hang it up every kick, even that can kick touchbacks. We have to turn something that was a weakness last week into a strength this week."

Fixing it is a priority, since the Panthers face three of the league's top returners twice a year — Harris, Atlanta's Cordarrelle Patterson, and Tampa Bay's Jaydon Mickens.

Of course, Blackburn's job isn't limited to fixing those coverage issues, and the other problem that popped up against the Saints was beyond his control.

When the Panthers got a 50-yard field goal blocked in the third quarter, the issue stemmed from an injury to left guard Pat Elflein earlier in the game.

Elflein is typically the right guard on the field goal team, in which two flanks of three offensive linemen are generally on either side of long snapper J.J. Jansen. (Veteran center Matt Paradis and left tackle Cameron Erving typically get a pass from field goal units, largely because of their value and the scarcity of replacements at their positions.)

But when Elflein left the game, they shifted rookie Brady Christensen from the left end spot on the field goal team to Elflein's right guard, leaving them one offensive lineman short for that unit.

They brought in defensive tackle Bravvion Roy to play left end, parking him next to Taylor Moton and hoping his wide-bodied frame would hold up.

But a miscommunication and some less-than-ideal execution left a gap between Roy and Moton on that kick, and Saints defensive end Carl Granderson strolled through it untouched and blocked the kick.

It's not a job Roy has never done before, but to say it's not part of his normal job description is fair, since defensive tackles are almost always moving forward as opposed to back in protection.

Blackburn said Roy's had practice on the field goal unit in his time here, but most of those reps come during training camp, and it's not a normal thing for him.

Much like figuring out which running back or wide receiver is your emergency quarterback if the first two go down, Blackburn's constantly looking at the roster for emergency plans for when things (inevitably) go wrong over the course of the season.

"Yeah we were short O-linemen at the time, we had to maneuver some things, and I've got to do a better job of getting the right guys in there, getting a lot of guys multiple reps, and getting the technique coached up for anyone who could possibly be out there," Blackburn said. "Bravvion's had a hundred reps at it. We've got to get him more live reps, more work every day every week to stay consistent with it, to never let anything like that happen again. We've got to be better in technique."

As with many parts of the job, injuries are beyond Blackburn's control. But spending extra time in practice this week getting new guys a look at things they might have to do was definitely on his list.

And you could tell the way Rhule was stressing it earlier this week — saying "we will play well on special teams" — makes it clear it's a big deal.

"We have a lot of good coverage guys and a bunch of guys who are on this team because of their ability to cover kicks," Rhule said. "I think this will be a wake-up call for everybody.

"We all have a job to do, players and coaches. And if we don't cover kicks, if we don't make field goals, if we don't block, we're not going to be a good team. So I think our whole team saw how important this was going to be."

View photos from Tuesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to travel to Houston for Thursday Fight Football.

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