Jets special teams took a step back in 2020. Brant Boyer’s unit had been a major strength the previous two seasons. In 2018 the Jets finished first in the NFL in both DVOA (Football Outsiders’ metric that puts play results into context) and Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings. In 2019 the Jets finished fourth in special teams DVOA and eighth in the Gosselin rankings. Last year nothing went right for the Jets, including special teams. They fell to 29th in DVOA and 26th in the Gosselin rankings.
Despite the decline, the team retained special teams coordinator Brant Boyer. That is no small deal since there was a head coaching change. Few assistants tend to survive a transition at the top of the organizational chart. The fact Boyer did shows how highly he is regarded within the building. It also shows the Jets don’t blame him for last year’s decline.
Logically if coaching wasn’t the issue it would follow that the Jets would look to upgrade their special teams through roster moves. If the problem was the players, they need better players.
Indeed one of the first moves of the offseason was signing free agent Justin Hardee from the Saints. While Hardee is nominally listed as a cornerback, he seldom plays on defense. He has carved out an NFL career as an ace special teamer. This was the most prominent move in the game’s third phase, but special teams in general seemed to be an under the radar focus.
At this very early stage of the season, it looks like a success. Jets special teams didn’t have the opportunity to do much aside from punting the first week of the season. However, they did that effectively. The Jets had the tenth best net average on punts in Week 1.
That would be impressive under any circumstances, but you have to remember that the Jets spent most of this game without their real punter. The placekicker Matt Ammendola stepped in with no preparation and did an admirable job after Braden Mann went down with an injury.
Some of the credit has to go to the coverage unit. The biggest standout was Del’Shawn Phillips. Phillips signed with the Jets during the offseason. He played two games last year with Buffalo. The year before he failed to make the Atlanta roster as an undrafted free agent.
Phillips is actually on the practice squad right now. He played in the opener as the league now allows teams to activate practice squaders without adding them to the 53 man roster in certain circumstances.
In the Carolina game Phillips made three special teams tackles, tying him for the league lead. All three tackles came on punt coverage.
Here you’ll see good teamwork. Phillips is able to release down the field early because he had no blocking assignment. Hardee is the gunner on the right hand side, and he forces the returner to the middle of the field, right into Phillips.
Here he releases a little bit later since he has to block but makes a solid open field tackle to shut down a return.
On the third play he somehow doesn’t trip over Daniel Brown, gets down the field, and gets off a block to assist on the tackle.
It also should be noted that Phillips in for 79% of all special teams snaps as well across multiple kicking units. (This was on top of a surprising 89% of defensive snaps due to injury, leaving little time for rest.) With all of that playing time and this type of performance I wonder whether Brant Boyer might have a new favorite. This is worth watching. It could be Phillips’ ticket off the practice squad and onto the active roster.