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December 14, 2015

For second straight week, Eagles' special teams are huge in a win

Eagles NFL
121415DonnieJones Michael Perez/AP


Last week in Foxborough, the Philadelphia Eagles made two enormous special teams plays against the New England Patriots. Chris Maragos blocked a punt that Najee Goode returned for a touchdown (we broke that play down here), and Darren Sproles returned a punt for a touchdown.

Yesterday against the Buffalo Bills, the Eagles' specials teams came through in a big way once again. One of the biggest plays of the game was the muffed punt by Bills returner Marcus Thigpen. As Thigpen was about to field the punt, he saw Eagles gunner Jaylen Watkins bearing down on him, which caused him to flinch, leading to the muff. Watch Thigpen turn his body as he's about to catch the ball:

"I'm surprised he didn't fair catch it," said Watkins. "I was coming in pretty hot, and I was scared because he could call for a fair catch at the last second. But I had my foot on the gas, and I saw him kind of fold up because he was looking at me and the ball went right through his hands."

The reason Thigpen likely didn't fair catch it was because he didn't expect anyone to be anywhere near him when he caught the punt. Why? Well...

  1. The Bills were doubling the Eagles' gunners. When you do that, obviously you're trying to set up a return, and the likelihood that a gunner will be in your face when you catch the punt goes down dramatically.
  2. The ball was punted to the middle of the field. Therefore, that's an added distance the gunners have to travel to get there, as opposed to a punt being hit toward the sideline.
  3. It was a 52 yard punt, so it had good distance. Again, the deeper the punt, the more likely it is the returner will have a chance to return it.

Instead, Thigpen seemed surprised that Watkins was there. Here's Watkins bearing down on Thigpen in a wider view. Watch as he sprints from his gunner spot on the right side, alllllll the way down and across the field to the opposite hashmark to make the play:

"I was doubled, so I had to beat the double," said Watkins. "I had to go outside, and carve all the way back inside the hash. Donnie (Jones) had to have had a lot of hang time on that."

Indeed Donnie did. By my stopwatch, Jones' 52-yard punt had a hang time of 4.91 seconds, which is excellent for a punt of that distance. Donnie was certainly fired up about it, as shown by his fist pump / hand-to-bicep high five:

That play occurred after the Eagles just had three consecutive three-and-outs. The Bills would have had good field position, with a chance to take a lead. Instead, a few plays later, Sam Bradford found Nelson Agholor for a long touchdown pass. That is a huge swing because of one special teams play.

Otherwise, Jones was outstanding. If you take away Jones' 32-yard punt in which he pinned the Bills inside their own 10, Jones had six punts of the "blast it away" variety. Those punts had distances of 62, 56, 52, 42, 51, and 57, for an average of 53.3 yards per punt.

"Donnie was huge, and that's a really good point," said Chip Kelly. "He punted outstanding today. And I think really, we talk about trying to flip the field and punt and he really did. Some of those, it was just, ‘Wow’. He was hitting some bombs out there. I don't know what his final stats were, but I think that, and combined with the guys covering on the outside, I thought our gunners did a really good job. The big play by Jaylen there obviously. But I think when we can cover when he's punting that well, it's really going to help us here."

But the Eagles' success on specials against Buffalo wasn't just in the punting game. At times this season, the Eagles have lost close games, and it was easy to look back at missed field goals as the potential difference. Against the Bills, there was no reason to look back and wonder "What if?" as Caleb Stugis was 3/3 on his three field goal attempts. He was also perfect on touchbacks, as the lone Bills kick return came on a squib kick at the end of the first half.

A season ago, the Eagles' special teams units masked a lot of Eagles' problems, which helped them get to 10-6. The last two weeks, the special teams units have played a huge role in a pair of wins.

Follow Jimmy on Twitter: @JimmyKempski

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