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Third Phase Could Be Most Crucial Sunday

Posted Jan 30, 2014

Independent analyst Andrew Mason writes about the effect the Broncos' special teams unit could have in Super Bowl XLVIII.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Special teams are a reason why the Broncos have made it to Super Bowl XLVIII, even though coordinator Jeff Rodgers' units have overcome massive shuffling to get to this point. That helped contribute to some frustrating moments, particularly late in the season.

But in the AFC Championship Game, the special teams were clean: no penalties, no breakdowns. Like the defense, it played one of its best games when it was most needed. And like the defense, it finally found cohesion through the chaos of injuries, which shuffled the special teams as much as the defense.

"This year was a little bit of a unique year, in that we had so many different guys with so many different roles," Rodgers said. "You look at our defense, and it relates to the kicking game, if Duke (Ihenacho) is not playing as much defense, we want him on the field in the kicking game. The same thing with (Wesley) Woodyard. We're going to get him on the field on fourth down. It took those last two weeks after the San Diego loss and the playoff games, where guys kind of solidified their roles."

"These last couple of weeks, you can see a more cohesive unit, where guys know who's going to be next to them, they can play off them, they can really play fast, because they know what's going to happen next to them."

The constant ins and outs were difficult, but as Rodgers reminded a reporter, it's the normal life of being a special-teams coordinator.

"You know that going in every week, every year, that the personnel changes on offense or defense will affect us," Rodgers said. "If an offensive or defensive starter gets hurt, then all of a sudden, Bubba Caldwell becomes a heavy offensive guy, and we're going to tailor his role down. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense when the same guy is playing 80 snaps on defense, trying to play 30 snaps on special teams. But that's just part of the gig. We've tried to give different guys roles where they can be successful on all their job descriptions."

Fortunately for Rodgers and the Broncos, the specialists have remained a constant: kicker Matt Prater, punter Britton Colquitt and long snapper Aaron Brewer.

The trio and their coach worked at MetLife Stadium Wednesday. Each team's specialists were allowed to visit the stadium once to work in the conditions; the Seahawks' specialists arrived immediately thereafter.

"It was nice. The conditions were pretty good and the ball was flying pretty good," said Prater. "It's supposed to be pretty calm on Sunday. You just have to trust your kick. Kick it straight and it should stay pretty true."

The conditions are slightly different than at the late Giants Stadium, which was notorious for turning into a wind tunnel on some winter days.

"Well, my experience at old Giants Stadium was it was pretty constant one way or the other. It is a little bit different in this stadium," Rodgers said. "Matt seemed fine, Britton kicked fine, Aaron snapped fine, and that will help them. The more experiences you have doing stuff, the more it's going to help you."

Added Prater: "The winds swirl a little bit in there, but I think it's supposed to be pretty calm Sunday. So hopefully it won't swirl and you just have to trust your kick when you are kicking there."

After the session, Rodgers set he felt comfortable using Prater up to "60-63 yards" -- assuming he was in an end-game or end-of-half situation.

"At this time of year, with these temperatures, watching the ball flights and things, that's probably a somewhat accurate number," Rodgers said. "But if it's a must-deal, and we've got a little bit of a wind at our back or whatever, we can stretch that a little bit."

But the game situation matters.

"I think sometimes you're watching the game, and you're like, 'Why wouldn't they kick this, get points on the board? It's a 55-yarder, it's within his range,'" Rodgers said. "Well, it's fourth-and-1, and you take the percentages where the offense can get a first down on fourth-and-1, versus the number of made kicks. Now, Matt's one of the most accurate guys of all time from beyond 50, but I think all those things -- (including) what's the score -- play a role in it."

But Prater's proficiency matters, too. It would be impossible for Rodgers to have more confidence in him for a potential game-winning kick. On a scale of one to 10, "it's a 10," Rodgers said.

Prater was the only special-teamer on a unit whose performances ran the gamut throughout the season. Hampered by the shuffling, the Broncos were 23rd in punt-return average allowed and 32nd in kickoff-return average permitted.

But Trindon Holliday had two touchdowns on returns, and had a third called back for a penalty against the Chargers in the playoff win Jan. 12. Prater missed just one placekick. Colquitt forced fair catches on 38.5 percent of his punts, second in the league behind Seattle's Jon Ryan, and his touchback rate was one every 21.7 punts, eighth in the league.

With dangerous returners on both sidelines, there could be an occasion where either team opts to kick away from Holliday, or Eric Decker, or Percy Harvin, or Doug Baldwin.

"There's sometimes, in some situations, where you may not throw down the middle to Albert Pujols. There's a reason why you see intentional walks, there's a reason why you foul Shaq at the end of the game. There's a lot of different analogies you can use," Rodgers said.

However …

"That has not been Seattle's M.O., and that has not been our M.O.," Rodgers said. "It's been, a 'Let's do this' kind of deal. But every game and situation is different."

And the Broncos' situation is different than most.

"The difference is, if you're shortening the field via a pop kick, squib kick, something like that, then you're giving our offense and (Manning) the ball at the 30- or whatever yard line," Rodgers said. "I just don't know how great an idea that would be."

And that's part of playing complementary football. The special teams can help the offense get field position, but the offensive threat also provides Holliday and punt returner Eric Decker more opportunities.

Whether it's from them, or Prater, or via a punt block, the potential for an explosive special-teams play Sunday night looms. The Broncos' task is to ensure it's on their side.