By Scott M. Johnson
KIRKLAND – During his first three years as the Seattle Seahawks’ special teams coach, Pete Rodriguez saw his unit give up a total of two return touchdowns.
In eight games this year, the Seahawks have already matched that number.
“It’s kind of the law of averages,” Rodriguez said. “It catches up to you sooner or later.”
Denver’s Deltha O’Neal returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown last month, then Terry Kirby of the Oakland Raiders scored on a 90-yard kickoff return last week. Kirby became the first Seattle opponent to return a kickoff for a touchdown since Rodriguez took the job in 1998.
“You can’t let it affect you mentally,” Rodriguez said. “You just get it out of your mind and go on to the next one. If you let it bother you, it snowballs.”
In part because of the long returns, Seattle’s special teams coverage ranks 29th against the punt and 16th against the kickoff. During Rodriguez’ tenure in Seattle, the kickoff coverage unit has never ranked lower than fifth in the NFL.
“It’s very frustrating,” said linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski, whose primary contributions are on special teams. “It’s not like we’re not working hard and not trying to tackle. We’ve just gotten some bad breaks. We’ve just got to make the tackles. That’s what we’ve been doing the last couple years. It’s a frustrating thing. But we’re getting better.”
Kicker Rian Lindell has been inconsistent on kickoffs and field goals, and punter Jeff Feagles has also struggled at times. Coach Mike Holmgren actually blamed Feagles for the O’Neal touchdown return, while Rodriguez said Lindell’s kickoff placement was a primary reason for the Kirby touchdown.
In general, the special teams unit hasn’t been anywhere close to where it was during the three previous years.
“It’s an area of emphasis that we spend a lot of time on, and it’s just not happening the way we would like all the time,” Holmgren said. “We’ve had a couple big plays against us. We haven’t kicked the ball as well. We’ve missed more tackles. And our return game has been average. Now, we have eight more games to try and crank that up.”
Randle, Robertson expected to play: The Seahawks could have two defensive starters back in the lineup for Sunday’s game at Buffalo.
Defensive tackle John Randle practiced on a limited basis Friday, and Holmgren said he expects him to play Sunday after Randle missed last week’s game with a knee injury. Holmgren held free safety Marcus Robertson out of practice, but said he expects the veteran to return to action after missing three games with a sore hamstring.
“(Robertson) tested it this week. I think it feels pretty good,” Holmgren said. “Is it 100 percent? I’m not sure about that. We’ll see how it feels (today). My hope is that he can play.”
Pup pep talk: Holmgren had a meeting with all 26 first- and second-year players on the roster before the team boarded a bus bound for the airport Friday.
“We have more than anyone in football right now,” Holmgren said of the young players. “I just wanted to re-emphasize the point that everyone’s counting on them. While we’re young, I’m tired of talking about them as a young football team. They need to mature in a hurry. It was just one of those midseason chats.”
Remember me? Every Friday practice after a win ends with Holmgren handing out the game balls from the previous Sunday.
This Friday, Holmgren caused a few eyebrows to raise when he handed the offensive game ball to tackle Walter Jones. Running back Shaun Alexander, who ran for a team-record 266 yards Sunday night, appeared to have been slighted.
But after presenting game balls to punter Jeff Feagles (special teams) and linebacker Anthony Simmons (defense), Holmgren brought out a special ball to commemorate Alexander’s team record.
“We try and share the wealth just a little bit with the game balls, and Shaun had already received a game ball,” Holmgren said, referring to Alexander’s 176-yard performance against Jacksonville earlier this season. “He was going to get a game ball for the record, too. He doesn’t gain an inch if nobody blocks for him. Walter had about as good a game as any lineman since I’ve been here. Shaun understands.”