The Tennessee Titans’ group of punt returners has a new goal for the 2019 season. They want to get at least ten yards for the offense every time they get their hands on a punt.
“I think our goal is just to get one first down,” receiver Adam Humphries said. “Obviously you want to score every time you touch the ball, but our goal as a punt return unit is to average ten yards per return. Most importantly, field the ball, get what you can get. Our punt return team did a good job of getting a body on a body, letting me get around the edge, and making an explosive play.”
Humphries was the first Titans player to return a punt during the team’s preseason opener on Thursday, and he accomplished his goal. He notched a 23-yard return down the right sideline, setting up quarterback Marcus Mariota and the offense inside of Eagles territory.
“I think it’s important because football’s a team game,” receiver Kalif Raymond said, “and the overarching goal is to win games as a team. So, when you get 5-10 yards a return, the idea is that you save the offense one less first down to get.”
Like Humphries, Raymond was also successful when he got his opportunities to return punts in the Titans’ preseason opener. He averaged 11.7 yards per return on 3 attempts.
In 2018, the Titans were 12th in the NFL when it came to average yards per punt return, but that stat doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to how the team actually fared in that department. They struggled with ball security and decision making.
“I think it’s important for us to do better on punt returns than we did last year,” head coach Mike Vrabel said after Saturday’s practice of Training Camp. “Whatever we did last year wasn’t good enough.”
Adoree’ Jackson, the Titans’ primary punt returner over the last two years, figures to see a diminished role on special teams this season, both due to his value as a defensive player and his general ineffectiveness last year in his role.
“Balls to the wall, that’s pretty much my opinion on it,” Jackson said when asked to explain the important traits for a good punt returner. “When you go out returning, they’re flying at you, and you’re flying at them, trying to make them miss. It’s a one-way streak, like playing chicken out in the street with your friend. You’re trying to make them miss, and they’re trying to hit you.”
While it’s certainly important for returners to have the “balls to the wall” mentality Jackson described, it’s perhaps more important for them to balance it with a focus on making safe decisions.
“Just not being reckless, making the right decisions,” Humphries said, asked about the keys to finding that balance. “If you feel the punt’s got good hang time and there are some guys in your face, you’re safe to just throw a hand up and possess the ball, be safe there. If you think you’ve got some room to work and maybe get 5-10 yards, shoot your shot and go for it.”
“It’s tough,” Raymond said, “but I think it comes down to, when you’re calm, you can kind of make those judgment calls. When you’re frantic, it’s hard to find that line.”
On the first “unofficial depth chart” that the Titans released as a part of their first weekly pre-game press release of the season, Humphries was listed as the team’s starting punt returner. However, Vrabel has seemed to indicate that the job is up for competition and that multiple players could get opportunities to catch punts during the season.
Cover image: Kirby Lee & Bill Streicher/USA Today