Jake Elliott Injury shines spotlight on special teams woes for the Eagles

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NFL: NOV 15 Eagles at Giants
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – NOVEMBER 15: Philadelphia Eagles punter Cameron Johnston (1) holds the ball for Philadelphia Eagles kicker Jake Elliott (4) during the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants on November 15, 2020 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

The undefeated Philadelphia Eagles will travel to the desert to face the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. Jake Elliott will reportedly miss the game with an ankle injury. Undrafted rookie, Cameron Dicker, hopes to fill the shoes of the reigning NFC Pro Bowl kicker.

Excellent efforts on both sides of the ball have carried the Eagles early in the season. The running game and the passing game have been featured on offense at different points. The defensive line and the secondary have both produced dominant efforts in the first four games.

However, the third phase of the game has been a weakness of the NFL’s most impressive team so far. The Eagles haven’t executed well consistently on special teams in their four victories. They’ll now face the additional challenge of replacing an overlooked position of consequence against the Cardinals.

Eagles’ Special Teams Tendencies

The Eagles have shown most of their minor faults with poor tendencies on special teams. Punter Arryn Siposs sits 22nd in the NFL in average yards per punt. However, his lack of field awareness has led to multiple unnecessary touchbacks, dropping his net average to 25th in the league.

Siposs also punted for 36 yards or fewer three times in an NFC Wild Card Round after struggling down the stretch in 2021.

Britain Covey dressed in the first three games of 2022 after being elevated from the practice squad each week. The Eagles signed the undrafted free agent to the active roster before their Week 4 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Covey hasn’t shown the best field awareness as a punt returner. His muffed punt in Week 3 against Washington backed the Eagles up into an unfavorable field position inside their own 10 for a first-quarter possession. His shaky vision and unideal blocking in front of him haven’t made for a threatening punt return game.

Most NFL kickers can boot a touchback from their own 35-yard line consistently. However, opposing kickers have intentionally dropped kicks short of the goal line against the Eagles to test a suspect kick return game. Quez Watkins struggled early in the season and has already forfeited his role to Covey.

Michael Clay’s unit could turn to Boston Scott once he returns from a rib injury. The 31-year-old assistant coach also mentioned Kenneth Gainwell during his Tuesday press conference as a talented option in the return game.

Elliott has made four of his five field goal attempts this season. His only miss was a block in Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings. He also missed an extra point in Philadelphia’s Week 4 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Siposs did make an excellent tackle to prevent a touchdown after the field goal block, and Zech McPhearson earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors after Week 1 for recovering an onside kick attempt.

Advanced Stat Weaknesses

The advanced stats paint a cringy picture of the Philadelphia special teams units. Pro Football Reference assigned a negative value to their expected point total in all four games. The offense has produced a positive value in all four games, and the defense has produced a positive value in the three most recent games after a shaky start against the Lions in Week 1.

The DVOA metric from Football Outsiders “measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent” in all three phases of the game. The Eagles rank second in the NFL in total DVOA, fourth on offense, and third on defense. Only the Buffalo Bills have a better overall rating.

However, the Eagles rank 30th in special teams DVOA, which uses field goals/extra points, net punting, punt returns, net kickoffs, and kick returns in its formula. Blocked field goals do not factor in because their significant impact would skew stats too heavily, so the Eagles might be even worse if the mishap against Minnesota was taken into consideration.

The ugly advanced metrics aren’t a brutal weakness that will immediately sink the season without drastic improvement. The Miami Dolphins, who have also had an excellent start, sit in the 31st spot. The New York Jets own the league’s second-ranked Special Teams DVOA.

Some recent Super Bowl teams have benefitted from strong Special Teams DVOA. The Rams ranked fourth last year, and the Bengals ranked eighth. The Chiefs and 49ers also put up good numbers during the 2019 season before they met in Super Bowl LIV.

The New England Patriots have appeared in nine Super Bowls during the 21st century. They finished in the top half of the NFL in Special Teams DVOA in all nine of those regular seasons and in the top quarter of the league in six of the nine.

There are enough recent examples of Super Bowl teams who failed to meet a good level of Special Teams DVOA efficiency. Most of them were overwhelmingly talented teams, like the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

However, teams who didn’t enter the preseason as Super Bowl favorites sometimes get a chance to put together something spectacular. They must capitalize on all opportunities for improvement in all elements of the game to play complementary football because of the low margin for error for teams that make deep playoff runs.

Eagles Special Teams in 2022

The Eagles will make adjustments to a new kicker in Arizona. Any scenario where a major miscue doesn’t cost them points will be an acceptable short-term outcome until Elliott gets back. 

They elevated experienced special teamer Andre Chachere from the practice squad for the first time this season against the Jaguars. The move to add a special teams ace paid off in 2017 after Bryan Braman played his first game in December. The Eagles blocked three kicks in his debut, including a punt on a critical play started by Braman. Elliott himself also got his shot in the NFL in 2017 after an injury to Caleb Strurgis.

However, improvement on special teams has less to do with adding talent from outside the organization than any other phase of the game. It’s more about overall continuity that Clay must help these units develop throughout the season. Execution on special teams has a lot to do with a mental edge and the type of mean streak needed to throw vicious hits in the open field.

Nick Sirianni regularly reinforces the idea that the Eagles need to master the parts of the game that require no talent. With expectations soaring through the roof in Philadelphia, one problem needs to be nipped in the bud.

Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire

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