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A Special Kind Of Unit

Posted Nov 10, 2011

Cards' inconsistent season hasn't touched special teams

Calais Campbell reaches up to block the Rams' field-goal attempt on the final play of regulation during last weekend's game.

Moments before Calais Campbell reached his paw high above his head to block the field goal that would have beaten the Cardinals last weekend, he pulled Darnell Dockett aside.

Dockett was supposed to angle his push on the block left, but Campbell told him no, just to push his man hard forward.

“Ohh boy,” Dockett remembered thinking as he got down into his stance. “Your (rear end) better be right.”

Dockett charged forward, knocking his guy back and then heard the pleasant sound of leather smacking hand.

“A lot of people don’t put the emphasis on special teams, but finally, I think everyone on our team understands what special teams means,” Dockett said. “If we don’t block the field goal, we lose the game. That simple.”

And if Patrick Peterson doesn’t return a punt 99 yards a couple of minutes into overtime, the Cards might also still have lost. But the win over St. Louis was the most special of special teams games, one in which the impact of the oft-ignored section of the game was indisputable.

Special teams coach Kevin Spencer has been in the NFL a long time – coaching since 1991 in the league – and the only time he could recall being at a game where special teams dominated the outcome was when he was on the Browns’ staff in 1993, when Eric Metcalf returned a pair of punts for Cleveland as they rallied to beat the rival Steelers.  

Never really like Sunday though. Spencer doesn’t want to jinx anything – “The football gods will bite you in the rear end soon enough,” he quipped – but it’s hard not to notice that the Cards’ special teams is playing well in all facets.

Besides Peterson’s league-leading 21.8 yards a punt return, the Cards are eighth in kickoff returns and – on kickoffs that didn’t come after safeties – are second in the league in kickoff coverage. Campbell has a pair of blocked field goals. And punt coverage has improved since punter Dave Zastudil and key gunner LaRod Stephens-Howling returned to health after early-season injuries.

As Spencer did an interview Thursday, Stephens-Howling walked by and called Spencer “a magician.” Spencer waved him off.

“The guys,” Spencer said, “are taking ownership.”

That includes designating certain players to lead special teams meetings and to watch video. Spencer said some players have caught things on film even he hadn’t noticed. It has added to the closeness of the unit and the need of each not to let the unit down.

“They don’t want to be ‘That Guy,’ ” Spencer added.

Former Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley –who grew up around the great Steelers’ teams of the 1970s because his father worked in the personnel department – used to talk about how then-coach Chuck Noll didn’t spend a lot of time practicing special teams. Haley insisted those great Steelers teams would have won more often if he had, just because special-teams breakdowns often we the key to rare losses.

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has always considered special teams important. It’s not always easy constructing a 53-man roster with the best special teamers – those players still have to be, in the worst-case scenario, a backup at a regular position – but the Cards have found players to do so.

Stephens-Howling may be the best example. He has proven to be one of the best kickoff returners in the league, is an outstanding gunner in punt coverage, yet said his favorite spot after having the ball in his hands is on the kickoff coverage unit.

“It’s what you have to do to solidify yourself in the NFL,” Stephens-Howling said, “and if I go through my whole career only playing special teams, I’ll know I’ll have given it my all.”

The Cards have a core of other non-return special teamers, guys like Reggie Walker and Rashad Johnson, Sean Considine, Michael Adams, Hamza Abdullah, and have starters like Daryl Washington and Campbell also playing key roles.

“Special teams is often an overlooked phase but not for this organization and not for coach Whiz,” Abdullah said. “They put an emphasis on it from day one.”

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