NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans' special teams units have delivered game-changing plays and have been equally successful at preventing them.
The game-changing plays include a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown by Tommie Campbell and a 105-yard kickoff return by Darius Reynaud against Detroit and a punt block by Tim Shaw that got Tennessee the ball at the Pittsburgh one-yard line and set up a touchdown by Jamie Harper two plays later. Rob Bironas punctuated the win over the Steelers with a 40-yard field goal as time expired.
Shaw, who is in his second season as Titans special teams captain, said the unit is composed of offensive and defensive players that are bringing an understanding of the importance of and a commitment to executing on special teams.
"Special teams is so big, and I think a lot of people don't realize that until your special teams does something bad," Shaw said. "Then you're thinking, 'Oh, special teams lost the game for us. Well, special teams can win the game for you and they can lose the game for you. They are a very important phase, so just as key as making big plays, is stopping them from making big plays."
Covering punts and kicks will be important Sunday when Tennessee (2-4) visits Buffalo (3-3). The Titans are allowing 28.7 yards per kickoff return and just 5.6 per punt return this season. The longest punt return allowed by Tennessee so far is 14 yards, and special teams has not allowed a touchdown.
Bills return man Leodis McKelvin leads the NFL with an average of 24 yards per punt (nine returns for 216 yards) and returned a punt against Kansas City 88 yards for a touchdown in Week 2. McKelvin also ranks fourth in the NFL in kickoff return average (30.6 yards per return) with a long of 59.
Titans punter Brett Kern is leading the NFL in net punting average (44.5 yards per punt) and ranks eighth in gross punting average (48.5). Opponents have 78 return yards on 14 returned punts this season.
Kern and special teams coach Alan Lowry quickly pointed out that net average is a function of a punter and coverage team working together. Kern said the punt coverage team has done an "excellent" job and said part of that is the attitude players have brought to the duty.
"I think we have the guys, the right guys on the team that really take pride in that," Kern said, "and it shows with the touchdown returns already and the blocked punt, the game-winning field goal, and our punt coverage is doing well, so we're off to a great start in these first six games."
Kern often employs directional punting, where he places the ball between the numbers that mark the yard lines and the sideline.
Lowry said focus and disciplined execution are critical to punt coverage.
"You can get one guy out of place sometimes and not have quite as good hang time on a punt as you need and then you end up giving up a big play, so it has to be a total team effort."
Shaw said producing a big play on special teams results from scouting and preparation and on capitalizing on mistakes. He said "you have to think" that a punting team will make a blocking error each time but it rarely happens in the NFL.
"If you're not thinking about it, when it does happen, you won't make the block, so you've got to go after it all the time," Shaw said, "and the one time out of so many it does happen, you've got to take advantage of it."
Ironically, Shaw also similarly blocked a punt against Pittsburgh in 2011.
"They didn't stick on me long enough, and I was going hard enough to get there," Shaw said.
Titans coach Mike Munchak said he's appreciated the consistency on special teams in his first two seasons as head coach and thinks that's an area where the Titans claim advantages against most opponents.
"Our special teams unit is the one phase that's been consistent since last year of making plays and playing hard," Munchak said. "We've had punt returns, kickoff returns, blocked punts, fake punts. These guys are executing things which are a big part of us winning football games. That's the exciting thing about a team. Even though we're not winning, on that team it's offensive and defensive players on those special teams. The effort is there, those guys are working hard and they're playing well."