Falcons’ 2022 season review: special teams

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Editor’s note: This is the eighth of an eight-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ 2022 season. Today: The special teams

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons’ special-teams units improved dramatically from 2021 to 2022 as they jumped from 22nd to 10th in the league in the annual special-team rankings by longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin.

In the 42nd edition of the rankings, 22 kicking-game categories are valuated and assigned points according to their standing: one for best, 32 for worst. The Falcons finished with 309 points. Houston ranked No. 1 with 255 points.

The Falcons led the league in punt-return average as Avery Williams averaged 16.2 yards per return.

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The Falcons were ranked fifth in the special teams defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) ratings by Football Outsiders. The five elements of field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns are used and compared to the league average. The total is then converted into a DVOA percentage.

The Falcons (2.5%) trailed only Buffalo (5%), Houston (4%), Baltimore (4%) and Seattle (3.9%).

“Rankings, to me, are irrelevant,” Falcons special-teams coordinator Marquice Williams said. “Can we help our team win games? Did we win that down? So, at the end of the season when we are ranking our special-teams plays, how many plays did we win? How many plays did we lose, and how can we win the plays that we lost? We are not fixated on rankings. We’re not fixated on stats.”

The Falcons did well by Marquice Williams’ measure, too. The Falcons defeated the Bears 27-24 on Nov. 20, when Cordarrelle Patterson returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown. Special teamers Troy Andersen and Mike Ford had key blocks on the play.

Andersen blocked a punt against the Rams that Lorenzo Carter returned for a touchdown Sept. 18.

Richie Grant had a blocked punt against the Cardinals that helped the Falcons win 20-19 on Jan. 1.

“We do look at certain stats that help us, like when you talk about returns, 10 or more yards, 20 or more yards, and how that correlates to us scoring more points,” Marquice Williams said. “Those are all things that we look at.”

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The Falcons played in 13 one-score games and finished 5-8. The special teams helped directly in three of those wins.

“I’ve been on top-rated special teams, and we’ve won four games,” Marquice Williams said. “What can we do better on special teams to help the offense, to help the defense? There are strong correlations to that as special-teams coaches and special-teams players to do a better job.”

Avery Williams was a dazzling punt returner.

“I just think his overall decision-making,” coach Williams said. “Overall decision-making, not swinging at every pitch. You could return every single ball, but you’re probably going to put your offense in bad field position or put your defense back on the field.”

Williams had a season-long 56-yard punt return against the Bengals on Oct. 23.

“It was a bad punt down the middle,” coach Williams said. “Thirty-seven yards, low hang time. He had the urgency to go catch the ball so that he could go make the play.”

The coverage units were much improved. Andersen (263 special-teams snaps), rookie linebacker DeAngelo Malone (216), cornerback Ford (361) and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge (259) were key contributors.

Hodge led the team with nine special-teams tackles. Ford and Andersen each had seven, and Malone had five.

“It (was) great having all of those young men on our special teams,” Marquice Williams said. “They (worked) their tails off day in and day out. Being detailed. There (were) no shortcuts (to) success. They come in and they get in the extra time, the extra film sessions.”

Kicker Younghoe Koo was stellar. He made 33 of 35 extra points (94.3%) and 32 of 37 field goals (86.5%), including a long of 54 yards.

“It always can be better; it can always be (worse),” Koo said. “I’m going to keep working and try to get better.”

The Falcons didn’t have enough money to keep Pro Bowl long snapper Josh Harris last offseason. Rookie Liam McCullough took over after veteran Beau Brinkley ruptured his Achilles. Punter Bradley Pinion handled the kickoffs and served as the holder.

“It was a new group, but the process didn’t change,” Koo said. “No matter who’s in there, new people or same people, we just go back to work and try to improve every time.”

Koo had game-winning field goals against Carolina (a 37-34 overtime win Oct. 30) and against Arizona (a 20-19 win Jan. 1).

“I just try to do my job for the team and help the team,” Koo said. “Whether if I make the kicks or miss the kicks, just go back to work.”

Koo believes the Falcons are on the right path on their return to respectability.

“I think we’re building something special here, and we’re a young team,” Koo said. “I think we have a bright future. I’m excited for that.”

Falcons’ position-by-position analysis:

Part 1: Running backs

Part 2: Quarterbacks

Part 3: Wide receivers/tight ends

Part 4: Offensive line

Part 5: Defensive line

Part 6: Linebackers

Part 7: Defensive backs

Part 8: Special teams

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