Cards' 2009 Tasks: Improve Special Teams

After focusing on how the Arizona Cardinals can improve on offense and defense, Brad Wilbricht takes a look at special teams. The Cardinals' return game was less than spectacular last year and their kick coverage was among the worst in the NFL. With the 2009 season rapidly approaching, special teams is an area Arizona must improve in order to build on its success from a year ago.

While many overlook the importance of special teams at the NFL level, wins and losses are often determined by a game-changing return or field position. The Arizona Cardinals did a below average job on special teams a year ago but can develop a competitive advantage if their performance improves during the 2009 season.

Arizona ranked 25th in the NFL in kick returns last season, averaging a mere 21.7 yards per return. Backup RB J.J. Arrington was the team's primary kick returner in 2008 but is now out of the league due to a knee injury. Arrington's replacement must do a better job of securing field position for the Cardinals' offense while bringing an elusive aspect to the return game. Two incoming rookies looking to make their mark on special teams are RB LaRod Stephens-Howling and CB Michael Ray Garvin.

Michael Ray Garvin

WR Steve Breaston remains a weapon on punt returns but his output in the return game dropped a year ago. Arizona averaged just 7.2 yards per punt return, good for 27th in the NFL. Breaston compiled over 1,000 yards receiving in 2008 and his involvement in the offense could be taking away from his special teams performance. If that's the case, the Cardinals would benefit from replacing Breaston on punt returns.

Arizona's return statistics are lackluster compared to the rest of the league but its coverage teams fared even worse. The Cardinals ranked 30th in the NFL on kickoff coverage allowing 25 yards per kick return. With more depth in place entering this season, an upgraded kickoff coverage unit will be a top priority.

On punt returns, Arizona again ranked 30th in the NFL, giving up 13 yards per attempt. Thankfully for the Cardinals, they punted only 29 times in 2008 but their failure to contain on punt coverage will be exploited if that number increases during the upcoming season.

If Arizona is able to effectively limit its opponents in the return game and increase their own output on returns, the team's offense and defense will stand to benefit. If the Cardinals' are unable to make considerable progress in either of those aspects, it will be an uphill battle on special teams all year long.

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