In the Third Phase, Something Special’s Afoot

Eddie Royal

WR Eddie Royal's punt return Sunday gave the Broncos their second special-teams touchdown of the season. (PHOTO: ERIC LARS BAKKE / DENVER BRONCOS)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Eddie Royal’s 85-yard sprint through Oakland’s punt coverage to the game-winning touchdown Sunday not only propelled him to AFC special-teams player of the week honors, but confirmed a trend that had been building throughout the season — that the Broncos’ overall special teams were profoundly improved from last year.

Of the 16 special-teams statistical categories listed below, the Broncos have registered improvement relative to league rankings in 12 of them. Among all 16 categories, the Broncos have improved by an average of 5.6 spots, including leaps of 10 or more spots in six categories.

The most palpable improvements are in average per punt return (from 10.4 yards last year to 17.1 this year), net punting average (from 36.6 yards in 2010 to 43.1 yards in 2011) and percentage of returns fumbled (2.7 percent this year, compared to a league-worst 8.9 percent last year),. Last year, the Broncos fumbled four punts and four kickoffs; this year, the Broncos have fumbled just once.

Overall, the Broncos rank in the league’s top dozen teams in eight of the 16 categories measured for this study. Last year, they were only in the top dozen in three of these categories, while finishing in the bottom dozen in six of them.

Among the individual highlights:

BRITTON COLQUITT: He ranks third in the league in net punting average, improving in that statistic by 6.5 yards per punt from 36.6 last year to 43.1 this year.

MATT PRATER: Although his field-goal percentage has dropped precipitously — he’s missed more attempts through eight games this year (four) than in all of last season (three) — the new kickoff rules have increased his effectiveness there, as he’s improved from third to first in the league in touchback percentage.

DECKER, ROYAL AND COSBY: The Broncos’ three punt returners have helped them rank second in the league in punt-runback average, trailing only the Patrick Peterson-fueled Arizona Cardinals. The touchdowns by Royal and Eric Decker give the Broncos more punt-return scores after eight games than any season since 1982, when Rick Upchurch scored twice on punt returns.


Below is how the Broncos stack up on special teams through eight games this year compared with all 16 games in 2010:

PUNTING:

NET AVERAGE:

  • 2010: 36.6 yards (22nd)
  • 2011: 43.1 yards (3rd)

TOUCHBACK PERCENTAGE:

  • 2010: 8.1 percent (18th)
  • 2011: 4.5 percent (10th)

PERCENTAGE OF PUNTS INSIDE THE 20:

  • 2010: 22.1 percent (32nd)
  • 2011: 22.7 percent (29th)

PERCENTAGE OF PUNTS RETURNED:

  • 2010: 58.1 percent (28th)
  • 2011: 61.4 percent (30th)

KICKOFFS:

TOUCHBACK PERCENTAGE:

  • 2010: 28.2 percent (3rd)
  • 2011: 81.1 percent (1st)

KICKOFF RETURNS:

AVERAGE PER RETURN:

  • 2010: 24.3 yards (7th)
  • 2011: 25.6 yards (8th)

PERCENTAGE OF RETURNS ADVANCING LESS THAN 20 YARDS:

  • 2010: 40.7 percent (14th)
  • 2011: 14.3 percent (1st)

KICKOFF RETURNS AGAINST:

AVERAGE PER RETURN:

  • 2010: 24.7 yards (29th)
  • 2011: 23.6 yards (20th)

PERCENTAGE OF RETURNS ADVANCING LESS THAN 20 YARDS:

  • 2010: 33.3 percent (26th)
  • 2011: 20.0 percent (28th)

PUNT RETURNS:

AVERAGE PER RETURN:

  • 2010: 10.4 yards (16th)
  • 2011: 17.1 yards (2nd)

PUNT RETURNS AGAINST:

AVERAGE PER RETURN:

  • 2010: 11,0 yards (T-23rd)
  • 2011: 9.5 yards (16th)

ALL RETURNS:

TOUCHDOWN PERCENTAGE:

  • 2010: 1.1 percent (12th)
  • 2011: 5.4 percent (T-2nd)

FUMBLE PERCENTAGE:

  • 2010: 8.9 percent (32nd)
  • 2011: 2.7 percent (17th)

ALL RETURNS AGAINST:

TOUCHDOWN PERCENTAGE:

  • 2010: 0.99 percent (16th)
  • 2011: 0.0 percent (T-1st)

FUMBLES FORCED:

  • 2010: 1.98 percent (31st)
  • 2011: 0.0 percent (T-26th)

FIELD GOALS:

PERCENTAGE:

  • 2010: 88.0 pct. (8th)
  • 2011: 66.7 pct. (32nd)

 

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About Andrew Mason

Andrew Mason has covered the NFL since 1999, when he worked as an editor on NFL.com when the site was managed by ESPN.com. He worked six seasons (2002-07) covering the Broncos on their official website and two (2008-09) on the Panthers' site. He began MaxDenver.com in 2010 and now contributes to CBSSports.com, The Sporting News and The New York Times.

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