ALAMEDA –- The Raiders coverage units have had a rough month. They allowed some big returns in a Week 11 win over the Chiefs, and again two weeks later while beating the 49ers.
Then came Sunday at Kansas City, when the coverage unit finally broke. De’Anthony Thomas returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown, streaking untouched down the right sideline.
Interim head coach Tony Sparano said a few cover men got inside, allowing Thomas to shoot outside and break free. He opened the scoring and set the Raiders back in way that’s never okay.
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“We weren’t very happy about that,” core special teams player Neiko Thorpe said. “We watched that tape and made corrections. The goal is to do better next week. That has to happen.”
The Raiders can’t avoid a setback like that against the Buffalo Bills, a strong return team in its own right. They’ve returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown this season, and became more dangerous with running back/kickoff return man returning off short-term injured reserve.
Even if Spiller doesn’t play special teams in his first game back, the Bills are a threat on special teams. They rank No. 8 with 10.4 yards per punt return and have five returns exceeding 20 yards. Marcus Thigpen highlighted those efforts with a 75-yard punt return for touchdown last week in a victory over Green Bay.
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The Raiders must be on point in that area. Punter Marquette King has been strong in taking away return men, and Sebastian Janikowski generally booms kickoffs into the end zone. Whether or not the specialists do their job perfectly, the coverage units can’t make critical mistakes.
“Getting them to do it better is going to be critical for us because we can’t allow what happened last week to happen in this game,” Sparano said. “We’ve made that challenge to our special teams unit, no question about that, but that can’t happen. We can’t come out of the game and say we had 160-something yards worth of returns. That’s not going to work out for us. We have to change that.”