Fipp Has Eagles Feeling Their Way on Special Teams
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - New rules, a new punter and a number of injuries have Dave Fipp's special teams units feeling their way as the Eagles try to right the ship and turn a 3-3 start into another deep playoff run.
Everyone understands the NFL tweaked the kickoff rules before the season and Philadelphia turned the punting job from veteran Donnie Jones to the unproven Cameron Johnston but if you're discussing the uneven performance of special teams thus far Fipp is going to start at the injuries, some obvious like punt returner Darren Sproles and coverage stars Chris Maragos and Mack Hollins, while others not quite as tangible.
On the surface, banged-up starters like Jay Ajayi, Mike Wallace, and Rodney McLeod aren't impacting the coverage units but the domino effect of backups replacing them on the offense and defense certainly have.
"Injuries are hard," Fipp explained. "And not to complain, it's probably hardest on special teams. People say 'Well that doesn't [hurt] you, you guys lost Jay Ajayi.' Well, Jay Ajayi's [absence] means Corey Clement pushes up and Wendell Smallwood pushes up. Those guys are taking more snaps on offense and now who is replacing that role on special teams?"
In Week 6, Fipp was down even more with linebackers D.J. Alexander and Nate Gerry, two of the Eagles' better coverage players, out against the New York Giants with others like starting safety Malcolm Jenkins having to step in.
"It's obviously been a challenge," Fipp admitted. "We had two new guards on our punt team, we had a different gunner on the outside, Malcolm Jenkins was playing the personal protector and we were going against Odell Beckham and we netted 48 [return] yards. I thought that was positive. We had five new guys on kickoff [team] in the last game that weren't out there before."
Among those stepping up have been long-time ST stalwart LaRoy Reynolds, signed as a free agent in the offseason after a number of years in Atlanta, as well as DeAndre Carter as the punt returner in place of Sproles.
"He's done a great job for us," Fipp said of Carter. "Obviously, the first thing is catching the ball. He put one on the ground the other night but he's done a good job with that, done a good job with his decision-making and then the bottom line for him is he competes while the ball is in his hands."
As for the KO rules, Fipp puts part of the blame on himself as coaches around the league have attempted to figure out the new landscape as quickly as possible.
"We've finally gotten our hands on that a little bit or our hands off of that," Fipp joked. "We had way too many penalties early. It's been one thing we've been really good about around here, take a lot of pride in. Early on we just had a bunch of stuff. We've changed some things technique wise. I mean they've modified the way they call the game a bit. We probably didn't adjust fast enough, early enough. I blame myself there and then our guys have done a better job adjusting and making better decisions. It's a collaborative effort."
Johnston, meanwhile, has been what the Eagles expected, a young player with a high ceiling where consistency and situational punting will continue to come around.
"I think Cam's done a good job," Fipp said. "He's had some games better than others, some punts better than others. He's had his ups and downs. I think it's going to continue to go that way as a developing player. Overall I'm pleased with his progress and where he is at right now. We'd always like for everybody to be a little better so we're constantly working on improving."
Every coach has had to make due with the cards dealt them. The offense trying to overcome multiple injuries at receiver and running back while Jim Schwartz mixes and matches his available options at defensive tackle and the defensive backfield.
No one has had more moving parts to deal with than Fipp, however.
"I think guys have done a really good job of stepping up but there's no doubt it's a challenge," Fipp said. "That being said, that's part of the National Football League and coaching special teams, you've got to be able to overcome that."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen