Seahawks’ Ryan and Lockette form formidable special teams duo

RENTON — Following a three-and-out after the Seattle Seahawks’ first possession against the Denver Broncos two Sunday’s ago, a remarkable thing happened.

And what made the play so remarkable was just how routine it all seemed, right up until you did the math and realized it shouldn’t have happened. After Russell Wilson missed Marshawn Lynch on a third-down pass, Jon Ryan came onto the field and boomed a 61-yard punt. Broncos punt returner Isaiah Burse, seeing Ricardo Lockette closing fast, had no choice but to call for a fair catch.

Yes, he fair caught a 61-yard punt.

Later in the quarter, Lockette would get to Burse right as he fielded a 66-yard punt, though Burse was able to break the tackle and gain 15 yards. In the third quarter, Lockette leveled Burse immediately after he caught a 58-yard punt.

Just about every NFL punter is capable of hitting a big punt if he wants to, but one of the biggest mistakes a punter can make is out-kicking his coverage, allowing for an easy 10- to 20-yard return, or worse, a big, game-changing play. Ryan, however, doesn’t seem to be able to out-kick his coverage thanks to the hang time he puts on those big kicks along with the speed of Lockette, a former NCAA Division-II 200-meter champion at Fort Valley State.

“I don’t know,” Ryan said when asked how far is too far for Lockette to cover. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

There are a lot of pieces involved in Seattle’s punting game, from long snapper Clint Gresham to the blockers to the rest of the players covering the punt, but the combination of Ryan’s leg and Lockette’s speed, in particular, has allowed for the Seahawks to dramatically flip field position at times this season.

“Ricardo’s speed is really showing up and it really is a factor,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “At times in coverage, you get worried about out-kicking the coverage; we haven’t been able to do that with Ricardo when he gets off the ball so that’s a very big positive in the punt game. So hopefully that will continue to show up. Other guys do really well too at the gunner spots, but he seems to be unique. So we’ll allow Jon to kick away as long as we’re covering them.”

What’s even more encouraging for Seattle is that Jeremy Lane was one of the best gunners in the NFL last season. When he returns from a groin injury, he and Lockette could combine to give the Seahawks a punt coverage unit that’s almost impossible to beat, even if Ryan is booming 60-plus yard kicks.

“A lot of times you hit a ball 60, 65 yards, your net is sometimes 15, 20 yards back,” Ryan said. “But Ricardo always says to me, ‘kick it farther, kick it farther.’ When he has that confidence in me, and I have that confidence in him to get down there, I can just let it go.”

A season ago, the Seahawks usually asked Ryan to control his kicks to minimize return opportunities, and he did that so well that for much of the season Seattle was on pace to allow the fewest punt return yards in league history. This season, in no small part because of Lockette’s continued development as a gunner, Ryan gets to “let the leg out” as he put it after the Denver game.

While Ryan is often easy to overlook because of the position he plays, Carroll said he might have been the MVP of Seattle’s Week 3 win over Denver. And even if Ryan doesn’t always get his due, he does have the distinction of being the second-longest tenured Seahawk behind Brandon Mebane, having signed with Seattle early in the 2008 season. Ryan, along with Mebane and Max Unger, is also one of just three players who predates the Carroll and general manager John Schneider era in Seattle.

And a nice long, and yes, sometimes anonymous life as a punter suits Ryan just fine. After all, growing up in Regina, Saskatchewan, Ryan estimates he was “the only 8-year-old in the country who dressed up as a punter for Halloween.”

Dressing up as a punter involved Ryan’s mother hand-making a Bears jersey for him, but sadly he couldn’t get his hands on a helmet with a single-bar facemask.

But while Ryan dreamed of punting from a young age, it’s safe to say Lockette didn’t always envision making a name for himself as a gunner on special teams. And when Lockette first signed with Seattle as an undrafted free agent in 2011, he was too raw as a receiver to make an impact, despite his speed, and didn’t contribute on special teams to earn a roster spot. Now he is a big-play threat in Seattle’s offense, scoring two touchdowns on three catches, but more importantly, he has turned himself into an essential player on special teams.

Part of Lockette’s pregame ritual now involves finding an opposing team’s punt returner in order to warn of his ill intentions. He won’t get into specifics about what’s said because, “I don’t want to get fined,” but it’s probably safe to assume it isn’t nice.

“It’s different things depending on what’s going through my mind,” he said. “Normal conversation. It’s like, what do you say to a guy at work who you see every day who you totally dislike?”

Maybe someday we’ll hear what Lockette has to say, because he says he’d love to be mic’d up during a game so people could hear him as he sprints down the field on punt coverage.

“I’m running down there and I’m actually talking out loud,” Lockette said. “I’m like, ‘I got him, I got him, I got him, OK, OK, OK, the ball’s about to come, the ball’s about to come, I got him, I got him, I got him,’ then I bite down on my mouth piece. I’m really just watching his eyes and watching his hands, because you can’t see the ball, you can only read off of his body language. You don’t want to get there too early, you don’t want to get there too late, so as soon as his hands start to come up, I know the ball is near, and that’s when I take my shot.”

And who knows, maybe next week in Washington Ryan and Lockette can combine to force a fair catch on a 70-yarder. Because as good as that combination has been so far, both agree it can be even better.

“We’re just warming up,” Lockette said. “We want to be extraordinary.”

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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