When it comes to breaking down the match-up between teams, most concentrate on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. But there is a third phase to the game, a phase that is more important than it is often given credit.
That is special teams, the units overseen for the New York Giants by coordinator Tomas McGaughey.
Historically, the Giants’ special teams have been uneven and inconsistent from season to season. However, there is the hope that their success in the 2018 season will carry over into 2019 and provide “hidden yardage” to help both the offense and defense.
On the Giants’ options at returner
A big part of the “hidden yardage” equation is returning punts and kickoffs. The Giants struggled mightily to find a consistent option for either situation last year, cycling through returners on a nearly weekly basis. They hoped they had found their answer on kickoffs with Corey Coleman, but he was lost for the year early in training camp.
The Giants’ current strategy seems to let their answers at returner will distinguish themselves in games.
“You know how we do it,” McGauhey said. “It’s always kind of a hodge-podge. Jabrill (Peppers) will probably be back there returning punts, and Antonio Hamilton, (so) we’ll have those guys to work with. Kickoff and return wise it will be the same guys you’ve seen in the preseason — Cody (Latimer) and Corey (Ballentine). We’ll go from there and rock with it. Those guys are talented. Jabrill has been doing it his whole life, it’s like riding a bike for him. (We’ve been) Putting him back there, he’s practicing every day, getting him back into the flow of the game, (so) he’ll be fine.”
The Giants had hoped that free agent receiver T.J. Jones would be their answer on punt returns, but despite many chances in practice and games, he just didn’t do enough to warrant keeping him on the 53-man roster. However, McGaughey doesn’t believe that those reps were wasted
“Preseason is an evaluation process,” McGaughey said. “You have to be able to see what you’ve got. Like I said, we know who Jabrill is as a returner. I’ve watched the kid since he was 16 years old catch punts and kicks. I kind of have a strong inkling about him, what he can do and how he can do it. He just needs to knock the rust off, that’s all.”
Despite twice mentioning Peppers as an option to return punts, he hasn’t been nearly as prolific a returner in the NFL as he was in college. At Michigan, Peppers averaged 13.1 yards on 39 punt returns, but in the NFL that number shrank to 7.3 yards per return on 55 returns.
But despite the decreased production, McGaughey isn’t concerned, saying, “I think more than anything, it’s not like he’s been a touchdown machine. What we’re looking to do is a get a first down, with the punt return. If we break one, we break one. The first thing we want to do is get the first first down. Jabrill has the ability to take it to the house. It is our job, as coaches, to put him in a position where he can succeed. He has the talent to take it to the house, and if he doesn’t take one to the house, I’m going to put it on me, not on him.”
On Aldrick Rosas
One of the most pleasant surprises of the last year was to find out that the Giants might have one of the top kickers in the NFL on their roster. Coming off a horrific debut season in 2017, the general consensus was that Aldrick Rosas wouldn’t make it through training camp and wouldn’t be the Giants’ kicker in 2018.
He made fools of us all, however, and was nearly perfect in field goals and extra points. Rosas went from being an “adventure” to setting a franchise record in converting a 57-yard attempt to win against the Chicago Bears in overtime.
McGaughey chalks Rosas’ improvement up to gaining confidence, and believes that he can continue to get better as he gets experience and his confidence builds.
“He’s just getting better,” McGaughey said. “He’s getting more confident. I think the battery as a whole, you see the guys working together, the chemistry is outstanding. I can only see him getting better from here. Trying to be more consistent, trying to be better on and off the field, and just trying to grow up and mature as a young man. Sometimes people forget, these guys are 23 and 24-year-old kids. They are trying to figure out life and trying to get better every day, and that, more than anything, is just learning how to be a pro. That thing, especially for kickers, punters, and specialists, if you want to go into the double digits, and if you’re blessed enough to get into that 20-year range, and he has the talent to do it, you just have to learn to take care of yourself on and off the field.”
With Rosas’ development the Giants not only have a weapon to make sure more of their drives end in points, they also have more options when it comes to kickoffs. Rosas’ leg strength gives him the ability to ensure that any team, in any stadium, will start at the 25-yard line — effectively taking the most dangerous returners out of the game. His developing precision as a kicker also allows the Giants the option of trying to kick short of the goal line and pin offenses deeper in their side of the field.
Both tactics are valid and it depends on the coordinator’s philosophy, McGaughey says, “Some people want to kick it out the back of the end zone, some people just want to hang it up. You watch New England and how they cover kickoffs, they hang every one of them up because the percentages, obviously, the deeper that your opponent starts in their territory, the harder it is to score a touchdown. It just depends on your philosophy and how you go about it.”
As for the Giants, and himself, McGaughey says that how he calls kickoffs will depend on the opponent.
“It just depends on the week,” he said. “It really does. It depends who you’re going against, and how you feel you match-up against the other team.”
And when it comes to the Cowboys and rookie running back and returner Tony Pollard, it sounds as if the Giants will be wary.
“He is very, very talented,” McGauhey said. “The guy ran a 4.38, he hits it hard, straight, and fast. He ran through some big holes at Memphis, but he ran all of the way through them and scored. The guy at Memphis, who is at Penn State now, did a great job at coaching him. I promise you, Tony Pollard is a very talented kid.”