ALLEN PARK — Matt Prater was just named the NFC’s special teams player of the week for the 11th time, and you can make a convincing case he wasn’t even Detroit’s best specialist in Arizona.
Jack Fox sent another 65-yard punt into the stratosphere, becoming the first Lions player ever to have 65-yard punts in back-to-back weeks. That’s pretty good. He now leads the league in punting (53.1 yards per attempt), net punting (51.1) and even average hangtime (4.78 seconds). That’s also pretty good. Let’s call it the unofficial triple crown of punting.
Fox has been so good that he’s not only the No. 1 punter in the league, according to ProFootballFocus, but the distance between him and the No. 2 guy is greater than the distance between the No. 2 guy and every other punter in the league.
Jamal Agnew looks like he’s recaptured that All-Pro form from 2017 and leads the league in punt returns (17.5 yards per attempt). Don’t forget about long snapper Don Muhlbach either, who just played in his 247th career game and is about to move into the top 50 on the NFL’s all-time list in Sunday’s game against New Orleans.
What a special start for Detroit’s special teams under first-year coordinator Brayden Coombs.
“I talk about our job on special teams being whatever it takes to help the team win,” Coombs said. “Some games, that’s explosive games. And some games, it’s being more conservative and making sure everything is tightened up. But regardless of how that changes from week to week, one thing that’s always a crucial part of our job is controlling field position.”
That’s exactly what the Lions have done, better than every other team in the league through three games. And they’re not just stat-padding either. Their situational work has been outstanding, and played a key role in their first win of the season on Sunday in Arizona.
Fox had the 65-yard bomb against the Cardinals, and added 60- and 54-yarders as well. But his best punt just might have been his shortest, a 45-yarder that stuck at Arizona’s 2-yard line while the Lions were still trailing by three points in the fourth quarter.
Gunner Tony McRae did an excellent job downing the ball at the 2. The Cardinals were backed up against their own goal line, then went-three-out and the Lions sent their block team onto the field. They didn’t get a hand on the ball, but McRae delivered an excellent one-on-one block in the open field to help spring Agnew for a 19-yard return up the middle of the field.
Just like that, the Lions had the ball at Arizona’s 37-yard line, a huge sequence for a team trailing by three and struggling to find the end zone all day. Prater used the short field to tie up the game with a field goal, then later booted the 39-winner as time expired.
Prater received the national accolades for his buzzer-beater, and deservedly so. But don’t overlook the total contributions of the special teams unit in that game either, because they played a pivotal role in helping Detroit steal a win on the road.
“We actually tried to put more pressure on them,” Coombs said. “They did a great job in protection, we didn’t get home, but a lot of times when you pressure like that, even if you don’t get the block, you force a bad punt or low punt or a less-controlled direction punt. We happened to get one right down the middle of the field. If you go back and look, Tony McRae actually makes a hell of a block there. Blocking a gunner one-on-one, to me, is one of the most challenging things to do in football. That guy’s got a lot of space to work, and Tony had no help. Got it done.
“Then we trust Jamal to the nth degree to make good decisions and go make plays, and he did a great job of catching that thing and getting straight upfield. Like you said, that sequence right there, we put our offense back in good position. That was a part of the game where we felt we did our job.”
Coombs was hired by the Lions last offseason despite being just 33 years old. That makes him the youngest special teams coordinator in the league, and the fourth-youngest coordinator overall, behind only Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady (30), Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore (31) and Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly (33).
He’s actually younger than Muhlbach (38) and Prater (35).
But Coombs came up in that excellent special teams program in Cincinnati, and head coach Matt Patricia brought him in to tear apart Detroit’s scheme in the third phase. Through three weeks, the Lions have been among the best in the league by almost any measure. They rank third overall according to the advanced analytics put together by FootballOutsiders.
Don’t forget about long snapper either, where Muhlbach remains steady as always. He just played in his 247th career game, moving past Fran Tarkenton into sole possession of 51st place on the all-time list. He’ll move into the top 50 next week, assuming he plays against New Orleans. And considering he’s missed just one game since 2006 and none at all since 2009, that seems like a pretty good bet. Death and taxes, baby.
“I got to thank you for sharing that stat with me,” Coombs said. “Busting Mule’s balls about his age has quickly become one of my favorite pastimes, so the more ammo I have in that category, the better.
“He’s awesome. Working with him has been awesome. I would say that probably the two best traits that Mule has, aside from an awesome beard and elite athleticism, are probably, A, his selflessness, and, B, his commitment. He’s all in. He’s like an extra coach really with just his investment and his time commitment to what we’re trying to do. He plays a position where nobody’s really ever going to really hear his name unless he ever screws something up. Although I will say, I continue to be taken aback by sort of the legend of Don Muhlbach here in Detroit. He is certainly a local hero, and all that’s well deserved for him.”