The Oakland Raiders should know first-hand the importance of strong return specialists – because theirs (Phillip Buchanon and Terry Kirby) are both on injured reserve.
For Monday night’s home matchup against the New York Jets, the Raiders will two of such players across the field. The Jets boast the AFC’s two best returners in Chad Morton, who runs back kickoffs, and Santana Moss, who returns punts.
Morton has an AFC high 26.4 kickoff return average and is third in the NFL behind Arizona’s Martay Jenkins (28.0) and Philadelphia’s Brian Mitchell (26.9). Morton returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in New York’s season opening 42-36 win over Buffalo in overtime.
Moss, meanwhile, leads the entire NFL with an 18.5 average on punt returns with Cleveland’s Dennis Northcutt (15.4) a distant second.
The Raiders are currently on a season-saving, for the moment, three-game winning streak but in that time the special teams coverage has been checkered. Oakland has allowed just one punt return for 12 yards but that is more attributed to the Raiders averaging 34 points the last three games.
The kickoff return coverage, however, has had its ups and downs. The Raiders have allowed a 24.2 average on kickoff coverage including Kevin Faulk’s 86-yarder for a score in a 27-20 win over New England to turn a sure blowout into a close contest.
Besides the coverage units needing to maintain their assignments by not getting out of their lanes, Oakland need for kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler to be at their best.
The Raiders should be able to avoid Moss breaking big returns because their offense should move the chains more than effectively against a Jet defense that ranks No. 23 overall in the NFL. So, if Oakland’s offense scores that means it will be kicking off to the Jets.
Janikowski’s best bet is to kick the ball deep into the end zone. He has an NFL high 17 touchbacks but at times does not get the depth on kickoffs that he should.
Vince D’Adamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org