During the Broncos’ opening day of training camp, special teams coordinator Tom McMahon showed a drill video from two years ago.
“There were only four guys left (from that team),” he said.
Such is the life for McMahon and every NFL special teams coach, a constant churn and challenge to find backup players capable of playing on the coverage and return teams.
Entering Saturday night’s preseason finale against the Los Angeles Rams, the Broncos and McMahon were still searching for those “core” special teams players and leaders.
“Guys have to step up and lead,” McMahon said after practice Thursday. “It’s the NFL. You change every single year.”
The Broncos’ special teams in wins over Minnesota and Seattle was a mixed bag.
Kicker Brandon McManus had made all 11 of his attempts (four field goals/seven extra points), punter Sam Martin had a 42.4-yard net average and the kick return unit led the league with a 30.4-yard average.
“Kickoff return has been a bright spot,” McMahon said.
Conversely, Martin had a punt blocked and the kick coverage unit struggled against Seattle, allowing returns of 45 and 30 yards, drawing criticism from McMahon and coach Vic Fangio.
“Didn’t tackle well and didn’t get off blocks well,” McMahon said. “We don’t have a chance to tackle until we get off blocks. It got better as the game went on. The tipped (punt) — some people call it a tip, I call it a block.”
McMahon said McManus has done “a great job” on field goals, but “we just want more hang time,” on the kickoffs.
“We need about another two-tenths of a second to help the guys in coverage,” McMahon said.
The Rams game was the final audition for bubble players to make an impact on special teams.
“It definitely factors in a big, big (way) when you’re talking about the backup positions everywhere but the o-line, d-line and quarterback,” Fangio said.
Entering the Rams game, the leading special teams players in terms of snaps (not counting the specialists or offensive linemen) were tight end Eric Saubert and safety P.J. Locke (19 apiece), cornerback Parnell Motley (17), tight end/fullback Andrew Beck (16), outside linebacker Derrek Tuszka and safety Jamar Johnson (15 apiece) and safety Caden Sterns and cornerback Saivion Smith (14 apiece).
Jobs are up for grabs on special teams because of the roster turnover from last year. Gone are linebackers Jeremiah Attaochu (144 snaps, now with Chicago), Anthony Chickillo (144, retired), Austin Calitro (230, on Chicago’s injured reserve) and Josh Watson (181, released by the Broncos last week), and safety Alijah Holder (173, now with Detroit).
Safety Trey Marshall (276 special teams snaps last year) hasn’t played since spraining his ankle on the opening kickoff of the Minnesota game two weeks ago.
Asked if any leaders had emerged on special teams, McMahon mentioned Beck and Saubert.
“Leaders produce,” McMahon said. “When you make a tackle, you have a voice. Right now, none of those young guys have a voice. They haven’t made enough plays yet.”
McMahon said one fewer preseason game hasn’t made a big difference in assessing the roster.
“I think we’ve had four when you add the (two) practices with Minnesota,” he said. “That helped us. I used those two days as an evaluation.”
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