PHILADELPHIA – One of the major nits being picked during the Eagles’ 10-1 start was the ineffectiveness of the punt return game with undrafted rookie Britain Covey taking back 19 for 130 yards, a 6.8 average, with a long of 15 yards.
Those numbers were good for 19th among 23 returners who had enough traffic to be ranked by the NFL coming into last Sunday’s game against Tennessee.
A star PR in college at Utah, Covey, along with special teams coordinator Michael Clay, was starting to take some heat over one of the few things Philadelphia hasn’t excelled at in 2022.
Then came last Sunday and the Titans with strong-legged rookie punter Ryan Stonehouse, who led the NFL in both gross (53.1) and net (44.7) punting average.
Stonehouse lived up to his reputation and outkicked his coverage more often than not creating space and opportunity for Covey in what was a 35-10 rout in the Eagles’ favor.
The results in the PR game were three 20-plus yard returns for Covey, who finished the game with a career-high 105 yards, averaging 17.5 per return on six attempts, the second-best mark in the entire NFL this season behind New England’s Marcus Jones, who had 108 against the New York Jets.
“I didn’t know until my cousin told me. That’s pretty cool,” Covey told SI Eagles Today said of his big game. “And it’s fun because Marcus Jones, Marcus, and I, you know, for multiple years, we had been the top two return men in college.”
In one week Covey when from that No. 19 to No. 9 in the NFL’s punt return rankings.
“So I definitely get excited,” he said. “I mean, when I was in college, I would draw up our punt return schemes. And so every week I kind of approach it with that same mentality of looking at like how a coach would look at it, and say, Okay, where are their weak spots?
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“Where are they vulnerable? What can we do to kind of exploit those things and so yeah, that is one of those things when you see a punter kicking that far that, you know, you start to get excited against his team.”
Overall, though, the Eagles’ felt on the verge of success to the point Boston Scott predicted a big punt return leading up to the game.
“I think it has to do with punters giving us a chance,” Covey said. “… We have had some great punters that we’ve played against this year. So punters giving us a chance. But then also, just that belief, that confidence that we are capable of doing great things. And I’m excited for even the future of what we can do.”
Part of the issues leading up to the Titans game had to do with philosophy, in that the Eagles’ offense is so explosive the punt return unit is cautious by design.
“We have such a good offense that we’re taught to kind of be conservative,” said Covey. “We’ve been conservative as a unit because when you have such a good offense why take risks? …That can be frustrating as a punt returner at times, but also I understand my main job still is to secure the ball and try and get upfield.
“I try to do as I’m coached. There are times I wish I could take a few more risks. But when you have such a good offense, it’s not necessary.”
Perhaps the newfound success encourages the staff to take a few more risks now that it sees an upside.
“It’s always good to break out and just put it out there and I think what’s encouraging is, it’s not like we did anything crazy different,” said Covey. “We didn’t do anything really different schematically or anything like that. And it just shows you how, in most returns, what looks like a 10-yard return is one block away from being a 25-yard return.
“And I think that’s the encouraging message. … It’s not like we just played out of our heads. It’s just where we’ve had some 10-yard and 12-yard returns this year. One extra block turns that into a 25-yard [return].”
-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com’s Eagles Today and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on YouTube. John is also the host of his own show “Football 24/7 and a daily contributor to ESPN South Jersey. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen