2008 special teams huddle. (TFDS file photo/ P. A. Patterson)
In 2008 the Raiders return teams proved to be the spark plug that fired the Raiders late season success. During the last seven games, the Raiders returned three punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns. So far this season, the Raiders return teams have been positively unable to get out of their own way.
The Raiders have not been able to find a viable option as a kickoff returner, and Johnnie Lee Higgins has been off his game as a punt returner since he has returned from the injury he suffered in the first game of the season. The blockers have not been opening the same holes they were last year.
Special teams standout Sam Williams takes responsibility for the issues with the return game, "That is definitely on us. We help each other out. If we give them a little bit of space, they have to make one person miss, which will open it up. … It’s our job to get our job blocked, and it’s the returner’s job to make one guy miss and then get to the house.”
Last year's special teams coordinator Brian Schneider is now coaching for the University of Southern California and his replacement John Fassel seems to find himself on Levi's weekly buster list. The NFL also made changes to the blocking rules for kickoff returns. In this past offseason, they eliminated wedge blocking. Its a subtle change, but one that makes a wold of difference.
Williams said it would only take one return to get them on a roll. “That’s all it takes is one good return to get the confidence up and the returner believing in us and us believing in the returner.”
Last year's spark? According to Williams it was the addition of Marquis Cooper. "When Marquis [Cooper] came last year he was kind of the spark plug that got the special teams unit going. As soon as he came, we started taking it to the house and doing that kind of stuff, around this time of the year. All it is is us getting our confidence back, belief in us winning the one-on-ones. It’s easy to go out there on kickoffs and run somebody over. But when someone’s trying to run you over and you have to hold your ground, you have to be mentally tough.”
The Raiders need a spark right now wherever they can find it. If the return teams can pull it together for that first return to the house, that could be the needed jumpstart to the other two units.