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Special teams play has been pivotal in making New Orleans Saints well-rounded team

Game action photos from the New Orleans Saints win over the Carolina Panthers in week 17 of the 2019 NFL season.
Game action photos from the New Orleans Saints win over the Carolina Panthers in week 17 of the 2019 NFL season.

The assumption is sound that the New Orleans Saints special teams will do something impactful in Sunday's Wild Card playoff game against Minnesota in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Actually, it's borderline expectant that they will because all season, the Saints (13-3) have influenced games and won games on special teams.

Wil Lutz, the Pro Bowl kicker, made walk-off game-winners against Houston (30-28 victory) and Carolina (34-31), provided all the points against Dallas (12-10) and kicked four field goals in an eight-point victory against Atlanta (26-18).

Rookie Deonte Harris, the NFC's Pro Bowl returner and NFL's All-Pro punt returner, took a punt 53 yards for a touchdown to provide New Orleans' first points in a 33-27 victory over Seattle. He had a punt return touchdown called back because of a penalty in the 36-25 win over Chicago, and continually provided great field position in a 38-28 win against Tennessee by returning four kickoffs for 150 yards.

Four players blocked or deflected a punt this season. Second-team All-Pro special-teamer J.T. Gray blocked one and caused a safety, and Zach Line deflected one in the 36-25 victory over Chicago; Taysom Hill deflected one that led to New Orleans' first touchdown in the win over Atlanta; and Dwayne Washington deflected one that led to a field goal and opened the gates to a 34-7 victory over Indianapolis.

And punter Thomas Morstead was his usual standout self: 46.2-yard average, 43.1-yard net, 29 of 60 punts inside the 20, 21 punts fair caught and 166 return yards allowed on 24 returns.

Overall, it has been one of the Saints' best across-the-board seasons on special teams, occurring under Darren Rizzi, an accomplished special team coordinator in his first season on Coach Sean Payton's staff.

"It's just the work ethic, the determination that this locker room has," Harris said. "It's not just offense and defense, we take special teams very seriously around here and everybody bought in. Everybody works hard, everybody is trying to improve and get better every day and you can see it on the practice field and in the film room. Everybody is locked in and everybody is trying to do the best job they can do."

"I always have high expectations and I certainly had high expectations for this group," Rizzi said. "There were a few things that when we started the year off, kind of remained to be seen, like the return game with a rookie returner and that kind of thing. But that's obviously been a huge positive for us. And that's probably catapulted us into a bunch of huge plays in the return game.

"I knew a lot of the players, specialists (Lutz and Morstead) and Taysom and (Justin) Hardee and those guys. But I think guys like J.T. Gray really stepping up and having a huge year, I think Deonte stepping up and having a huge year, those things that were probably question marks coming into the year. They really got answered, so that's been a huge positive."

Harris was as big as surprise as any.

He had a record-breaking career as a college returner at Assumption, setting the NCAA all-division record for combined return touchdowns, with 14, and the Division II single-season touchdown return record, with eight in 2017.

But he battled injuries and a roster spot was anything but a given, since the Saints signed an accomplished NFL returner, Marcus Sherels, as an unrestricted free agent.

But Sherels was injured almost all of training camp, and once Harris got healthy, he seized control and took the job.

"I felt like the ability was there for the player coming in," Rizzi said of Harris. "Certainly had a rough start – he had some injury stuff he was battling in the spring and in training camp, and he missed a good portion of time. But to his credit, once he got back and was healthy, right from preseason game 1, he showed flashes right away.

"He had shown flashes at practice and some drill stuff and on college tape, but once he got an opportunity those first two preseason games, I think that's really where he jumped out at us. And I'm sure Deonte would be the first guy to tell you he's still a little bit of a work in progress. He's really not the finished product, he's still learning on the go. But it's a little bit crazy the way it worked out.

"I'm really happy for him. I think a lot needs to be said for just the return units. That's never a thing to do all by yourself. I think Deonte would be the first guy to tell you as well that those guys have done a tremendous job blocking for him in both kick and punt return. It's been a group effort."

It's been a labor of love, because of the potential payoff.

"That's all you have to do, just do your job," Gray said. "Because we've got the magic man back there."

Seems the Saints have been wand-waving when it comes to pressuring punters this season, too. But punt and kick pressure has been a calling card with Rizzi's units.

In eight seasons as the Dolphins' special teams coordinator, from 2011-18, Miami ranked first in the NFL with 11 blocked punts and second in the league with 22 total blocked kicks. Three special teams players were named to four Pro Bowls.

"At any given moment, that one play can change the momentum of a game," Gray said. "It can be a 'win' play, or it can be a 'loss' play. That's what's really important about our special team and that's why we take it so seriously."

Rizzi said that, mainly, the punt blocks and deflections have been due to effort.

"Sometimes it's a gameplan thing," he said. "(But) some of those weren't eight-man rushes, so to speak. There were some times where maybe we were just rushing a couple of guys and maybe not eight guys or seven guys. There's a couple, like J.T.'s, that was a design, six- or seven-man rush.

"And then there's ones like Taysom or Dwayne Washington where it's just great individual efforts. The thing I'm proud about is we've gotten our hands on four punts, and it's four different people. It's not like we're a one-guy dominant unit. We spread the wealth a little bit. It goes to show you the ability we have across the board on that unit, and the attention to detail.

"We call it the punt-block-return unit for a reason. It all starts with those guys setting the tone with the rush part of it, and that sets up the return game and then they help each other out. We don't ever want to be one-dimensional. We want to have the ability to rush the punter, we want to have the ability to return as well. That group has really set the tone for our field position a lot of times and that's got to continue for us. That's going to be a big part of what we do down the stretch."

A reasonable expectation, considering the way the unit has produced all season.

"We still have the same players that we did from last year, and we added on a few," Gray said. "With Rizz coming in with the great gameplan that he has, and working with great players, and us doing our 1/11th – what we're told on the field – we're coming together as a whole."

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