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A special couple of weeks

Posted Dec 19, 2011

Special teams again becoming area of strength in recent weeks

Montell Owens likes a lot of what he has seen the last two weeks.

And while Owens said maybe that wasn’t always true this season, he said it’s hardly an unimportant thing that in the last two games the Jaguars’ special teams unit has been much improved.

Two games, two special teams touchdowns?

That’s production. And Owens, a Pro Bowl special teams player last season and a leader on the Jaguars’ coverage and return units, helped account for one of those touchdowns two weeks ago against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Owens said continuing the recent trend is critical, not only because the Jaguars long have been known for special teams, but because that needs to remain the case.

“It has been a collaborative effort,” Owens said as the Jaguars (4-10) prepared to play the Tennessee Titans (7-7) at LP Field in downtown Nashville, Tenn., Saturday at 1 p.m.

“Weeks ago, I expressed to someone that we were lacking chemistry and continuity. Those are the two words that stood out in my mind. Whenever you have those two things, chemistry and continuity, good things are going to happen. Big plays are going to be made.

“We’re playing with more of that than we have all year long, so we’re seeing the results of that.”

Indeed.

The Jaguars, after struggling at times on special teams early in the season, have gotten a touchdown from the unit in each of the last two games.

Two weeks ago, against Tampa Bay, it was tight end Colin Cloherty picking up a fumbled punt and returning it eight yards for a touchdown. That was the Jaguars’ first touchdown in that game, and not only pulled them to within a touchdown in the second quarter, it started a 41-0 run to end the game during a 41-14 Jaguars victory.

That fumble, forced by Owens, came after Owens already had forced another fumble for the first of seven Tampa Bay turnovers in that game.

This past week, Kassim Osgood – a three-time Pro Bowl special teams player – forced his way through the line and overpowered a blocker to block a punt late in the third quarter. Reserve tight end Zach Potter returned the blocked punt 46 yards for a touchdown for the Jaguars’ first score in a road loss.

Jaguars interim coach Mel Tucker noted that although a fumbled punt also led to an early Falcons touchdown, the area had absolutely improved, something he called “very important.”

“You need all three phases – offense, defense and special teams – we talked about that,” Tucker said. “It’s so important to be sound and solid on special teams. You never want to lose that phase and the last couple of weeks we’ve been able to make plays in that phase, so that’s huge for us.”

Tucker and Owens each said one issue has been a factor throughout the season on special teams, both positively and negatively. That issue: injuries.

Early in the season, Osgood and Owens – the players around whom much of the special teams unit is built – missed significant time with injuries. Osgood missed four games and Owens missed three, and special teams aces such as Courtney Green also missed valuable time.

“It does hurt because those are impact players on special teams,” Tucker said. “Those are our difference-makers and Pro Bowl caliber players. And any time that you lose those guys or players like that obviously it could hurt your special teams. And so we were able to weather the storm until they got back, but they’ve definitely helped to improve our special teams.”

The Jaguars this season have placed 27 players on injured reserve, and it is the nature of special teams that injuries anywhere on the roster hurt special teams coverage and return units. A starter being out forces a backup to play a bigger role, and often that backup had been a special teams player. In the new role, the backup plays less special teams and a new player is put on special teams.

The result is a difficult task for a special teams unit, Owens said.

“We all depend on each other,” Owens said. “Any time you have anybody out, special teams is the unit hit hardest. When you have a plug-and-play deal going on, it interrupts that chemistry. It didn’t help that we were out, but it didn’t help some of the other guys being out.”

Owens said the recent improvement of the area has helped the Jaguars get back to something that was a core belief in recent seasons – that special teams not only matters, but should be a team strength.

“We’re getting there,” Owens said.

Owens said the special teams also was hurt early in the season by the absence of not only the off-season conditioning program, but organized team activities and mini-camps. While the focus of observers and media has been how the lockout hurt quarterbacks and continuity, Owens said the sometimes transitive nature of special teams players hurt the units, too.

Owens said that’s a reason he expects a significant improvement in the area next season.

“We’re going to go into this off-season having a full off-season, having OTAs, having that time,” Owens said. “Really, you set all aside, that chemistry – that’s what you get in the off-season. You need to establish it then so that when you get into the season you’re able to execute off of it. It’s not an excuse for why we didn’t have it.  It’s definitely not an excuse. But along the way, we’ve built that chemistry during the season. Once you get to the season, it’s too late, and we’re now starting to catch on and catch up with that.”

And while the unit is not playing as well as Owens said would be ideal, and while improvement is still needed, getting that improvement over the last two games would set a needed tone entering the off-season.

 “We’re getting there,” Owens said. “We’re still not where we want to be to continue the building process, but our arrows are pointing up. We need to go into these last two games of the season with that on the forefront of our mindset. That would be encouraging.”

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