Mike Benevides is 2-0 as a CFL head coach, thanks to the B.C. Lions special teams.
The defending Grey Cup champions haven’t skipped a beat with their rookie head coach. But Benevides says the Lions wouldn’t be undefeated if not for the play of Tim Brown, the CFL’s top punt returner this season.
“There’s no way we would’ve won the last two games without our special teams in terms of our return game,” the Toronto native said. “For us, it was a huge huge part of the wins.”
The play of Brown and other returners was indeed special last weekend as three punts and a missed field goal were taken back for touchdowns. That gives the CFL four special-teams TDs so far, which is already half of last year’s total.
Winnipeg’s Demond Washington had the first return TD, taking a punt back 82 yards in a 41-30 loss to Montreal on Friday night. In the nightcap, Brown had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in B.C.’s 39-36 home win over Hamilton, a game that also saw Chris Williams of the Tiger-Cats score on a 67-yard punt return.
On Saturday, Calgary’s Larry Taylor returned a missed field goal 125 yards for a touchdown in a 39-36 road loss to Toronto.
“That (four return TDs the same weekend) is probably a surprise when you look at it but overall you can see why,” Benevides said. “It’s one of those things that’s exciting for the fans and is a huge part of the CFL.
“It drives coaches crazy but when it’s in your favour it’s a huge part of why you win.”
Hamilton rookie head coach George Cortez agreed. Well, sort of.
“I don’t think anybody in the league is happy about the state of their special teams,” Cortez told reporters Tuesday. “Let me rephrase that.
“Everybody is happy with the return game and nobody is happy with their coverage game.”
Brown certainly gave Benevides plenty to smile about Friday with six punt returns for 157 yards and seven kickoff returns for 139 yards. He also had a 59-yard punt return in B.C.’s season-opening 33-16 home victory over Winnipeg.
However, that paled in comparison to the club-record 441 all-purpose yards Taylor rolled up against Toronto, second only in CFL history to the 474-yard performance Winnipeg’s Albert Johnson III had in 2000. Taylor had eight kickoff returns for 222 yards, two missed field goal returns for 136 yards and two punt returns for 70 yards in addition to a 13-yard catch.
But after Calgary rallied to tie the score 36-36, Argos rookie Chandler Williams had a crucial 34-yard kickoff return to the Toronto 47-yard line. Ricky Ray’s completion to Andre Durie to the Stampeders’ 27-yard line set up Noel Prefontaine’s winning field goal on the game’s final play.
Benevides, a former special-teams coach, says return teams usually have the early advantage on cover squads.
“At this point and time it’s Week 2, there’ still a feel-out process in terms of the personnel on rosters and where guys play on certain positions,” he said. “The other thing is cover teams is very much about getting live action.
“You can’t simulate the speed of tackling and covering kicks in practice whereas you can simulate pretty well the return aspect.”
Special teams are crucial in Canadian football because with only three downs on the longer, wider field returners have plenty of opportunity and ground to make big plays. Not only do punt teams have a lot of ground to cover, they must also give returners a five-yard cushion to catch the ball before being allowed to make the tackle.
But that’s sometimes easier said that done as Cortez said missed tackles really hurt the Ticats against B.C.
“It’s a big field, it’s a lot of space and good guys in space make it tough,” Cortez said. “You just have to constantly work to improve on that.”
The good news for cover teams, Benevides said, is during the course of the year they do catch up to the return squads. However, special-teams coaches continually tinker with their schemes.
For example, B.C. is in Regina on Saturday to face the unbeaten Roughriders and Benevides expects Saskatchewan’s cover teams will have some different wrinkles aimed at containing Brown. As a result, the Lions’ special teams will feature their own adjustments.
“It’s cat and mouse, it’s always the chess match,” Benevides said. “Obviously the pieces on the cover teams will continue to change and make it tough.”
Cortez, like Benevides a former special-teams co-ordinator himself, said a club’s special-teams units are forever evolving.
“Special teams are a lot like offence and defence,” he said. “You look at what the other guys are doing and you try to tweak what you do to find the best way for you to attack in your coverage or in your returns.
“Every game the good return team guys, their return will be different every game because they’re always tweaking and trying to make it better and we’re no different from that. We look at the coverage and what they’re doing, who they’re doubling and who is their best cover guy and try to tweak it all the time.”