Denver Broncos Have the Potential to Swing Games with their Special Teams Unit

Special teams can swing games, and next year, new coordinator Brock Olivo has the tools to grab some extra wins.

In every game, there are hidden points and yards that go a long way towards deciding the outcome. Total net yards can be tucked away inside forgotten plays like downed punts inside the five, blown up kickoff returns at the 12, or partially blocked kicks that flutter just 20 yards in the air.

We hear it all the time, but special teams is crucial. Behind offense and defense, it's the forgotten unit, but it's still a third of the game in terms of total impact, if not sheer quantity of plays.

In 2016, the Denver Broncos were inconsistent on special teams. There were times when their special teams cost them the game, and there were times when it saved them. Live by the kick, die by the kick.

Go back to the win against the New Orleans Saints. The Broncos led for most of the game, but Drew Brees rallies the troops and marches down the field with under two minutes to go, connecting with Brandin Cooks in the end zone to put the Saints up by a single point, should they make the extra point. Just as Trevor Siemian and the rest of the Broncos offense is getting ready to take the field and answer with a drive of their own, it becomes unnecessary. Rookie safety Justin Simmons times the snap on the extra point, cleanly hurdles the long snapper, and rejects Wil Lutz's kick. The ball fatefully bounces into the hands of Will Parks (luck favors the Wills that use two L's) and he races back the other way to flip the score and put the Broncos up by two. Denver holds on and wins 25-23.

After a bye week, the Broncos are back home and playing host to the Kansas City Chiefs. There are four major special teams plays that swing the game in the Chiefs' favor.

First, a safety results in a free kick that Tyreek Hill gathers and promptly returns 86 yards down the sideline for a touchdown, giving the Chiefs a total of nine points in two plays.

Later in the fourth quarter, Denver loses prime field position and an easy chance to score when Jordan Norwood muffs a punt inside KC territory at the 48-yard line.

In overtime, rather than conceding and settling with a tie, the Broncos line up to kick an improbable 62-yard field goal to end the game. Brandon McManus doesn't hit the ball cleanly and it sails left on him.  On the ensuing drive after the miss, Cairo Santos tries from 34 to win it. The ball strikes the left upright, but glances inside and good on the ricochet.

Kansas City won games with the strength of their special teams, and supplemented an okay offense with points and turnovers almost every week. As a result, their special teams coordinator Dave Toub became a head-coaching candidate, one of the big three names that interviewed with the Broncos after the season.

Of course, the Broncos decided in favor of Vance Joseph, but they weren't done combing Kansas City's special teams, hiring Toub's assistant, Brock Olivo, as special teams coordinator.

Especially late in the year, special teams started to swing games in the wrong direction for the Broncos while they were winning them for the Chiefs. It's one of the several reasons both teams met at 7-3 on Nov. 28, and trended in opposite directions immediately after the game.

Some things did change for the better, however. After Norwood's fumble against the Chiefs, Denver called up Kalif Raymond from the practice squad to replace him. Returns with Norwood were primarily damage control, "just field the ball cleanly and maybe get a few yards" situations, but when Raymond took over, there was finally the threat to break one off.

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In 11 opportunities, Raymond averaged 10.1 yards per punt return with a long of 25. On kickoffs, he got six chances and averaged 22.8 yards with a 40-yarder mixed in. He did fumble once in the Christmas-themed loss to the Chiefs.

The two kicking specialists are a bright spot for the Broncos going forward as well. Rookie punter Riley Dixon struggled early on, especially in the opener against the Carolina Panthers, but settled in to average 45.7 yards per punt (16th in the NFL) and drop 28 punts inside the 20 (tied for 10th). A lot of that's on him, and of course excellent gunning from Kayvon Webster and company. That's about all you can ask for a rookie, hoping another year brings more confidence and consistency.

He did, of course, make a game-altering kick against the San Diego Chargers in the Week Eight victory. With the Broncos up eight but pinned at their own goal line, Dixon uncorked a massive 68-yard skyscraper of a punt that flipped the field entirely and gave the defense plenty of room to close it out in the waning minutes.

Finally, Brandon McManus has blossomed into a reliable kicker in his third year with the team. After not missing in the 2015 playoffs, he followed it up with another solid season, hitting 29 of 34 attempts (including the 62-yard miss). In a league where there are more teams than good kickers, he's proven to be a valuable asset in the post-Prater world.

Overall, there's the potential to build a special teams unit that can become a supplementary offense rather than a unit that just does their best not to cough the ball up and play damage control. The hidden yards and accumulated points aren't always apparent at first glance, but they add up into a few wins or losses every season. It's time to enter the plus category for Brock Olivo and his special teams unit in Denver.

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Will Keys is an Editor for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.

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