They know at that point they are moments from the adrenaline burst of a down-field sprint and stopping the opposing returner with a thump, but there have been fewer opportunities to do so this season.
An offseason rule change that placed the ball at the 35-yard-line instead of the 30 has reduced the number of kickoffs covered by the Titans through four games. Opponents have returned nine kickoffs for 223 yards (24.8 yards per return) and opted for touchbacks 10 times this season. Last season through four games, opponents returned 14 kickoffs for 431 yards (30.8 yards per return), including two for 115 yards and a touchdown by Pittsburgh, and opted for five touchbacks.
Shaw, the captain of Tennessee’s special teams, said the group views every kickoff as one that could be returned.
“Despite the new rule, we’ve got to make ourselves think that we’ve got to go all out every time,” Shaw said. “When I’m covering a kick, I’m thinking about the ball. Period. I’m just trying to get to the ball, whatever possible way I can. I let all the work during the week, all the film study and practice lead me, and then I just use my instincts to get to the ball.”
Jacksonville returned one kickoff 26 yards, and Baltimore brought back four kickoffs for 142 yards. Denver had one for 19 yards, and Cleveland mustered just 36 yards on three kickoff returns last week, despite Joshua Cribbs being viewed as one of the NFL’s top return men.
Bailey said the kickoff coverage team tolerated the sprints that ended without hits because teams chose to take a knee and start possessions at their own 20-yard-line. When temperatures drop later in the season it is expected to be more difficult for kickers to log touchbacks.
“With the new rule it was a little bit frustrating in the first three games,” Bailey said. “Last week, almost always having the opportunity for them to get out, you feel like you are more a part of it. You’re continually hitting people, getting off the blocks and making plays. That’s what makes it a lot of fun.”
Shaw and Bailey, a pair of reserve linebackers that the Titans claimed off waivers and signed before the 2010 season to solidify their special teams, said they love their roles in kick coverage. Titans special teams coach Alan Lowry said Shaw and Bailey bring a high level of preparation to their game and that of their teammates, physicality and technique and speed to the kick coverage team.
“The biggest thing there is you’re going to have some guys that are speed guys and some guys that are physical guys,” Lowry said. “When you have a guy that are both, then you’ve really got something. Every week we try to see what kind of returns (opponents) like and we’ll move our personnel around.”
Lowry and Shaw said a successful kick coverage team maximizes the individual attributes of a variety of players into a unit that functions well together.
“That’s what’s so cool about special teams,” Shaw said. “You have guys from all different phases of the game that can come together and play as one in a group. You have your fast athletes, you have your bigger stronger guys, you have your receivers. Then you have your linebackers, that I think are the heart of the special teams — the hitters. It’s just so cool how we can all come together and do a job and all go down there hungry to smack somebody.”
Shaw said a player’s desire to do well on special teams shows up in the results.
“When you love the game and just want to be on the football field, you’ll do whatever you can,” Shaw said. “I promise you the guys that are good on special teams, they want to be out there and the guys that aren’t good probably don’t want to be out there that much. They think they’re a starter or they’d rather not. It’s not for everybody. You’ve got to be a little crazy. You’ve got to love the contact and the speed, and I love all of that.”
Tennessee (3-1) visits Pittsburgh (2-2) at noon Sunday in a Pennsylvania reunion of sorts for Shaw, who played collegiately at Penn State, and Bailey, who began his NFL career with the Steelers.
“I’m looking forward to going back. I’m ready to go and make some plays and give them my best,” Bailey said.
GRIFFIN RETURNS TO PRACTICE: Titans safety
Griffin said multiple people in his family suffered from the “24 to 48-hour bug” that caused him to lose nine pounds this week but he is looking forward to the trip to Pittsburgh and playing against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“He can have somebody hanging on him and still throw the ball, and he has a great group of receivers,” Griffin said.
Titans coach Mike Munchak said Griffin returned early Friday morning and will just need to get his energy back before Sunday.
STEVENS QUESTIONABLE: Munchak said tight end
Stevens, who has four catches for 73 yards and adds versatility to the offense with run blocking and pass catching, did not practice this week. Munchak said the team will assess how Stevens warms up on Sunday.
“You can (play without practicing) mentally, but it’s still different that you didn’t get reps,” Munchak said. “There’s no way that doesn’t affect a player.”
HALL PASS: Munchak said fullback