Divisional Round Evaluations: Special Teams

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By Paul Bowman, Sports Talk Philly Editor

Leading up to the Eagles matchup with the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Sports Talk Philly and Eagledelphia will compare the personnel of the two teams each day until gameday is here.

In this edition of our week-long comparison, we will look at the defensive backs that the Saints and Eagles will field on Sunday.


New Orleans ST | Wil Lutz, Thomas Morstead, Taysom Hill

Wil Lutz was selected to the PFF All-Pro Second Team this season and, as such, was one of the best kickers in the game. He made 28 of 30 field goal attempts with the only misses being from more than 40 yards out. He has also made 52 of 53 extra point kicks. That’s good for 93.3% and 98.1% accuracy on each type of kick. The Eagles will need to keep the Saints out of the range of Lutz’s leg. His long this season is a 54-yard field goal.

Thomas Morstead was selected to PFF’s All-Pro first team for the third time in his career this season. He has yet to be recognized on the AP All-Pro team, however. One reason he may not have made that team this season is his lack of workload. The Saints have punted only 43 times, tied for the fewest in the league. He averaged 46.4 yards per punt this season and managed to pin opposing teams within their own 20-yard line 15 times while forcing only four touchbacks.

While Alvin Kamara returns punts, he fair catches 75% of those and averages less than seven yards a return. Taysom Hill returns the kicks and can be quite dangerous. He averaged just under 25 yards per return with a long of 47 yards this season, meaning if a kick isn’t in the end zone, the Saints will likely get good starting position. He is no Tarik Cohen, however and is only returning because the Saints original return man is on injured reserve.


Philadelphia ST | Jake Elliott, Cameron Johnston, Darren Sproles

Jake Elliott, a fifth-round pick of the Bengals last season, has been a good acquisition since replacing Caleb Sturgis due to Sturgis’ injury last season. Elliott started out on shaky ground, converting only 11 of 15 attempts (73.3%) through the first seven weeks of the season. He has since converted 15 of 16 to earn a season completion percentage of 83.9% – exactly where he was in the 2017 regular season. His season long is 56-yards out, but it should also be noted that three of his five misses have been from more than 50 yards out, so it isn’t like Elliott has been missing a lot of chip shots. He also kicked the field goal that secured the win in the second Giants game this season. Elliott has missed two of his 35 extra points. At 94.3%, that isn’t bad and is better than his 2017 mark, but one of those misses came against the Cowboys in a game that the Birds lost in overtime; an extra point could have been the difference. In the wild card, Elliott was only needed twice delivered both times with a successful field goal and extra point.

Cameron Johnston, a rookie, has been quite the find as he has earned an average of 48.1 yards per punt. He has punted 61 times this season with seven touchbacks and 24 punts placed within the 20-yard line. He is able to give the team time to get downfield on punts, too. When his punts are returned, opponents have the sixth-worst average per return with just 6.3 yards per return. In the wild card, Johnston punted five times, landing one inside the 20-yard line and averaging 45.2 yards per punt. His average is going to be down because the Birds forced him to punt from the two yard line which did not give him the usual amount of room to punt and made him hurry the punt.

Sproles has been selected to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams in three different seasons as a return man. He is currently sixth on the All-Time All-Purpose yardage leaderboard and is just 128 yards behind Tim Brown for fifth. A large part of his positioning on that list is his ability to create huge returns. Over his career, he has registered nine return touchdowns. While he averaged just 8.3 yards per punt return this season, he has not gotten many chances due to the 11 games he missed with injury as he returned only 10 punts this season.


Edge

Wil Lutz is a better kicker than Jake Elliott. That is just a fact. Elliott may have a knack for the clutch, but he needs to be more consistent between that if he ever wants to reach Lutz’s level.

While Morstead was selected to an All-Pro team, the Eagles rookie punter takes the edge. Johnston has had to work with longer fields than Morstead, so it is reasonable to assume that that is the reason why Johnston averaged 1.7 yards more per punt this season. What is shocking is that Johnston, with that longer field, has the higher ratio of kicks inside the 20. His 39.34% compared to Morstead’s 34.88% is remarkable and becomes more difficult to maintain with the increased amount of punts Johnston has had.

The return argument is a difficult one. Sproles has barely returned punts this year and neither has Kamara as the Saints look to keep him from getting injured. On kickoffs, Hill can be dangerous, but a simple touchback neutralizes his play. Either side could have a breakout, but neither has yet to do it yet.

The Saints win the kicker battle, but the Eagles take the punting battle. The two sides splitting at returners means that this round ends up in a draw.


  QB RB WR/TE OL DL/LB DB ST
Eagles
Saints