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Cardinals Benefit From Surge In Special Teams Play

Group has bounced back from poor performance in New England

Ezekiel Turner was the latest special teams standout for the Cardinals.
Ezekiel Turner was the latest special teams standout for the Cardinals.

As a former Pro Bowl special teamer, Budda Baker had a sixth sense on Sunday as the Cardinals' punt unit lined up in the fourth quarter of a tie game against the Eagles.

"I'm on the sideline, and I'm thinking something's up," Baker said. "I see Zeke (Turner), and I saw them rep it in practice. I'm like, 'Aww, here we go.'"

In late November, the Cardinals' special teams unit had an uncharacteristically poor performance in New England, as coverage lapses and a missed field goal by Zane Gonzalez contributed to a 20-17 loss.

The group has been nearly flawless in December, racking up a pair of fumble recoveries and a blocked punt in three games, with Turner's 26-yard fake punt reception against the Eagles the cherry on top.

The play was actually covered pretty well, but Turner did his best DeAndre Hopkins impression, making a beeline down the field and then whipping his eyes back to track a perfect pass from punter Andy Lee.

"It was like a wide receiver," Baker said. "Over-the-head catch and very smooth."

The performance in New England felt like an outlier because the Cardinals' special teams unit has been an asset since Jeff Rodgers took over as its coach in 2018.

There is a core group of players that have been there since the beginning, including Turner, wide receiver Trent Sherfield and outside linebacker Dennis Gardeck. Safety Chris Banjo, linebacker Tanner Vallejo and safety Charles Washington are others who have found prominent roles the past two seasons.

"We're a veteran group," said Turner, who had a blocked punt against Philadelphia before his catch. "We knew what we did wrong (against the Patriots) and we knew we had to bounce back."

The week after the New England game, Washington forced a fumble against the Rams, which Sherfield recovered. In Week 14 against the Giants, outside linebacker Kylie Fitts inadvertently forced a fumble with his foot on kickoff coverage and Sherfield jumped on it.

Turner was the star on Sunday, getting mobbed by his cohorts after each big play.

"It's a close group, and they all root for each other," Rodgers said.

The biggest special teams question down the stretch centers on the kicking game. Veteran Mike Nugent is a perfect 5-for-5 on field goals in two games since replacing the injured and struggling Gonzalez.

Nugent was signed to the practice squad as a COVID-19 insurance policy in mid-September and is now front and center.

"Mike's a pro," Rodgers said. "He's handled everything really well. He understood what his role was when he came in here. He and Zane have a great working relationship. When he was available, I think that's what everybody was looking for this year, with 16 practice squad spots and the expansion in qualifications where you could sign a vet guy who has been around for 15-plus years, who has some pelts on the wall with this league. We were fortunate that we could get him."

Nugent will be the kicker for the rest of the regular season. Gonzalez was placed on injured reserve recently but would be eligible to return for the playoffs if the Cardinals make it.

It will be an interesting decision for the Cardinals if Gonzalez is healthy, as he seems to have the stronger leg but missed several important field goals in the weeks preceding his injury.

"He's in a good place right now," Rodgers said. "I think he's just trying to get healthy and get back on the grass and kick. When he's healthy enough to do that, he will be able to get back out there and get back on the horse."

Special teams play can be an afterthought until it has a big impact on a game. The Cardinals have been on both sides of the coin this season, and hope to continue the string of positive showings down the stretch.

Even though the stakes are high with two games left, don't expect Rodgers to get conservative. He called the fake punt on Sunday knowing there was significant downside if the pass fell incomplete.

"There's always a risk to it, right?" Rodgers said. "You have a punter throwing the ball. You have a linebacker catching the ball. There is a snap element, a protection element. Sometimes things look good on paper. Like that particular play required us to have three linebackers, a tight end and a long-snapper block their starting defensive line. Do we think we can hold up long enough?

"You're looking for ways every week and in every phase to steal a possession or create a play, try and put your team in a good situation."

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