The New Orleans Saints had good reason to feel optimistic about their special teams units as the 2014 season drew to a close. The units were solid for much of the season, but took a substantial step forward – particularly in the return game – over the last four games.
Punter Thomas Morstead was his usual, elite self. He averaged 46.4 yards on 58 punts, with a 42.9-yard net average. Nineteen of his punts were downed inside the 20 and on the 24 that opponents did return, they gained only 99 yards. The Saints were just as solid on kickoff returns, allowing 26.4 yards per return on attempts that usually began six to eight yards deep in the end zone.
The Saints' own return game had been rather pedestrian through the first 10 games, with Brandin Cooks averaging 3.5 yards per punt return and Travaris Cadet chipping in 24.3 yards per return on kickoffs. But when Cooks was injured and placed on injured reserve after 10 games, it allowed the Saints to sign Jalen Saunders of the Jets' practice squad and Saunders paid dividends down the stretch.
He returned three kickoffs for 139 yards, including a 99-yarder against Atlanta on his first NFL kickoff return. And he took back nine punts for 99 yards, including a 32-yarder against Carolina. He finished the season with the Saints' longest punt and kickoff returns, exhibiting a knack and aggression in both areas that, perhaps, previously had been missing.
If Saunders can carry over to next season, and Cooks better can learn the nuances of the return game, they could team to give the Saints scoring weapons in the return game that New Orleans can pair with solid coverage units.
Key stats and rankings:
42.9 net yards per punt by Thomas Morstead, No. 2 in the NFL
46.4 gross yards per punt
99 punt return yards allowed on 24 attempts
139 kickoff return yards, on three attempts, by Jalen Saunders
25.9 yards per kickoff return by the Saints
19 off 22, field goals made and attempted by kicker Shayne Graham
Receiver Jalen Saunders proved to be a steal for the Saints, who signed him to the active roster off New York's practice squad and turned over the return duties to the rookie. He responded by giving the Saints their longest kickoff (99) and punt (32) returns of the season, showing willingness and aggression in the return game that perhaps had been lacking.