Broncos committed to fixing special teams coverage issues: “We just need to keep sawing wood at it.”

Within an hour of finalizing the Broncos’ initial 53-man roster on Aug. 31, general manager George Paton was still focused on his team’s biggest flaw: special teams coverage.

“We need help on special teams,” Paton said. “From last year and even in training camp, (we’re) probably not good enough.”

Two games in, it’s clear the Broncos still need help despite Paton’s roster tinkering aimed directly at that deficiency.

Paton traded for linebacker Jonas Griffith and claimed cornerback Mike Ford off waivers and both played the majority of the special teams snaps in wins over the New York Giants and Jacksonville. Coach Vic Fangio said the added speed from those players has helped, but hasn’t been an elixir for the unit.

“Obviously it’s (still) a problem,” Fangio said. “It’s not one that we haven’t addressed. We went out and got some guys, claimed some at the final cutdown to help us with special teams. We played (starting inside linebacker) Josey Jewell on special teams, and he got hurt on a special teams play. So, it’s been addressed. We just need to keep sawing wood at it.”

The Broncos’ kickoff coverage ranks last in the NFL with a 46.5 yards allowed average, a number skewed by the 102-yard touchdown return by the Jaguars’ Jamal Agnew in Sunday’s game.  Fangio called the garbage-time score “disappointing” and the result of a number of coverage miscues. But the early trend is a continuation from last season when Denver ranked 31st in kickoff coverage (29.9-yard average).

“We had some bad stacking in there where we could have stacked the blocker on our back a little more and made the play,” Fangio said. “There was a bad angle from the back side in particular which could have got him down after he got through that first wave. We could have tackled it at the 25 (yard-line)…. Obviously, we need to fix that.”

In addition to Griffith and Ford, the Broncos’ other primary special teams pillar has been tight end Eric Saubert, who’s played 89% of the unit’s snaps. Safety P.J. Locke and rookies Andre Mintze, Caden Sterns and Jonathon Cooper have also all been core contributors to coverage or return units that have seen wholesale changes from 2020.

While the names are different, the unit’s lack of discipline has remained.

The Broncos are tied for second in the NFL with four special teams penalties, which have cost them 40 yards (second-most in the league). Two of those were post-whistle flags on Ford, one for unnecessary roughness against the Giants and another for unsportsmanlike conduct against the Jaguars. And the other two came via pre-snap false starts on Baron Browning and Nate Hairston in Jacksonville.

It’s those sorts of miscues, and an overall sum of inconsistencies, that led the Broncos to putting Jewell on the punt coverage team. Jewell suffered what is likely a season-ending pectoral injury on a tackle on a second-quarter punt .

Fangio didn’t apologize for his strategy, re-emphasizing the team “made a commitment to improve our special teams.” Against Jacksonville, Jewell and Saubert (considered a part-time starter) were the No. 1s who played on those units, not including point-after/field goal attempts or the onside kick.

“We have a few guys that do that, that play on special teams who are considered starters,” Fangio said. “We’re looking to make our special teams better. When I was in San Francisco, (linebacker) NaVorro Bowman, who was All-Pro all three years and contending for Defensive Player of the Year, covered every single punt for three years in San Francisco.”

Special teams coordinator Tom McMahon said recently that “the biggest goal for every unit is field position.” Denver’s been doing a moderate job at that so far.

The offense ranks 16th in average starting field position at the 28.4-yard line, while the defense is faring better, ranking fifth with an average starting field position of 23.9. Of course, field position cannot be attribution wholly to special teams play, but McMahon knows it’s a major factor.

“We want to basically (set us up) to play half-court offense, and that’s our No.1 goal for our return units,” McMahon said. “(We also want) full-court defense. If you were to ask just to summarize our goals, every goal is around that.”

And despite Agnew breaking four Broncos tackles and outrunning everyone else for his highlight-reel TD return, the Broncos’ special teams has had its overall strengths early on.

Denver ranks first in punt coverage through Week 2 (2.0-yard average) and second in punt returns (13.3 yards). The directional punting ability of veteran Sam Martin has much to do with that first number, and the evolving maturity and skill of returner Diontae Spencer has much to do with the latter. Meanwhile, team captain Brandon McManus is 5-for-5 on field goals and has the second-highest career field goal percentage in team history at 82.8%, just behind Matt Prater’s 82.9%.

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