The Miami Dolphins expected their special teams would be a strength, anchored by a punter considered among the NFL’s best.
It certainly hasn’t worked out that way.
Aside from rookie Jarvis Landry’s excellence on kickoff returns, the Dolphins’ special teams haven’t been remotely special.
Their punt coverage ranks last.
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Their kickoff coverage is third from the bottom.
Their kicker, Caleb Sturgis, ranks 28th in field-goal accuracy and is the NFL’s second-worst kicker on 50-plus yard field goals since he entered the league last year.
All of that might be surprising, but not shocking.
Here’s what is shocking: Brandon Fields has somehow gone from second in the league in net punting average in 2013 to 32nd and last this season.
For years, Fields was a model of consistency. He entered this season with the third-highest gross punting average in league history, his 46.8 trailing only Shane Lechler and Thomas Morstead.
His 50.2 average in 2012 is the highest in team history and he also holds the second and third spots in the Dolphins’ record books for highest punting average in a season. Last season, he joined Reggie Roby as the only Dolphins punters ever selected to a Pro Bowl.
But his numbers have plummeted this season. His 43.3 gross average is second-worst in the league (ahead of only Tampa Bay’s Michael Koenen) and his 31.8 is last in the league in net average.
“Everyone needs to do their job better and it starts with me,” Fields said. “I’m my biggest critic. I just haven’t hit the ball well in games. But I’m confident. I’ve done it [well] the last seven years.”
Coach Joe Philbin mentioned the blocked punt in the Buffalo game and said of Fields: “For his standards, it’s not quite what we’re used to. He just hasn’t looked as comfortable back there as he has in the two years that I’ve been here. I’m confident he’ll work his way through it and he’ll get back to being the outstanding punter that we all know.”
As for Sturgis, former general manager Jeff Ireland drafted him with the belief he would be a much better long-range kicker than Dan Carpenter.
But since coming into the league, Sturgis is just 4 for 9 on field goals of 50 yards or more, including 1 for 2 this season. Only Houston’s Randy Bullock has made a lower percentage of field goals of 50 yards or longer since the start of last season.
Carpenter, by comparison, is 6 for 9 on those 50-plus yard field goals since joining Buffalo last season following his release from the Dolphins, who chose to keep Sturgis instead.
The long-range kicks “are something I need to work on,” Sturgis said. “My confidence is always there. I’ve just got to go out there and do it.”
During his five seasons with the Dolphins, Carpenter was 5 for 10 on field goals of 50 yards or longer. But he has inexplicably been a better kicker for Buffalo than he was during his final three years with the Dolphins.
On field goals between 40 and 49 yards, Sturgis is 10 for 13 with the Dolphins, including 2 for 3 this season, whereas Carpenter is 12 for 13 for the Bills, including 2 for 2 this season.
But as a Dolphin, Carpenter was just 47 for 62 on field goals of 40 to 49 yards – one factor that led Ireland to use a fifth-round draft choice on Sturgis in April 2013.
Sturgis’ overall 78.6 percent accuracy this season (11 for 14) ranks 28th among kickers. Last season, his 76.5 accuracy (26 of 34) ranked 29th.
He missed a 50-yarder and had a 37-yarder blocked against Chicago last Sunday, and Philbin told him in a team meeting this week that “we’ve got to make those field goals.”
Sturgis agrees: “I should have made those. There are things I need to work on.”
But Philbin also said “I like the way he’s been kicking the ball … and I suspect that he’ll get better at it.”
The Dolphins’ special team issues don’t stop there. They’re allowing a 15.8 average on punt returns, the highest figure in the league.
And they’re yielding 29.3 yards, on average, on kickoff returns – which ranks the Dolphins third-worst in that category, ahead of only Carolina and Oakland.
“There are a lot of factors that go into it – the kick, there’s coverage, there’s defeating blocks, there’s tackling, there’s spacing, there’s reading the blocking schemes,” Philbin said. “We have some things we need to correct. I wish I could say it was one thing.”
The good news about the Dolphins’ special teams? Landry ranks second in the league in kickoff return at 31.2, barely behind St. Louis’ Benjamin Cunningham. But he wants to improve on punt returns; his 6.6 average ranks 21st and he has fumbled two of them.