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Das Boot: Seahawks' combination of Jon Ryan, Ricardo Lockette (and Jeremy Lane) could be special

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I've said this in the past and I still believe it to be true: Pete Carroll legitimately, genuinely views special teams as one-third of the football power hierarchy, on an even plane with offense and defense. Carroll has kept players on the 53-man roster simply because of their special teams prowess, and as has been publicized a lot this year, he's not afraid to put his best players in on those special teams plays. Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas do kickoffs. Richard Sherman does punt teams. He briefly put Earl Thomas in as the team's starting punt returner, and one of the reasons that the Seahawks were so interested in Percy Harvin is that he's one of the best kick returners in NFL history.

Special teams are huge. I can't say with any certainty that they're more important to Carroll than they are to other teams' coaches, but I think the track record of who he plays there speaks for itself.

PUNT RETURNS RECORD:

Last year, Seattle went into their final game closing in on an all-time NFL record for fewest punt return yards yielded in a season. To Week 17, they had given up a total of 25 return yards on punts. Think about that -- on one punt return on Sunday, Broncos' returner Isaiah Burse got 15 yards when he was able to elude the initial attack by a heat-seeking missile known as Ricardo Lockette. Giving up 25 total return yards over 15 games is insane.

Seattle's final game did not go to plan, and the Rams were able to pick up 57 yards on punt returns, shattering the Seahawks' shot at the NFL record of 49 punt return yards in a season set by Atlanta in 2008. The Hawks finished with 79 yards yielded on punt returns, which is nothing to scoff at (their prior team record was 140 yards), but you know they were pissed at missing on the record books.

Here's the thing, though. Part of the reason Seattle was so close to the NFL record last year was that Jon Ryan would purposefully punt the ball medium range in order to allow his punt coverage gunners to get down to the ball, either forcing a fair catch or no catch at all. This year, it's safe to say that Ryan is booting the shit out of the ball.

The team has allowed him to do that because of Ricardo Lockette's coverage speed. I'll get to that, but first:

Ryan hit punts of 66 and 64 yards vs. San Diego and against Denver, he blasted one 66 yards, then following a safety, destroyed the ball 79 yards downfield, nearly putting a punt from the 20-yard line into the endzone.

"That was the best game I've ever seen Jon have," Steven Hauschka said after the Denver game. "Something clicked with him last week and he has just started crushing the ball. He's just giving himself more space and he's able to swing freely and he's just killing the ball."

Even Ryan admitted it.

"All preseason and this season, when we're backed up, they let me let the leg out a little bit," said Ryan. "I love it. I'll hit as many bombs as they'll let me hit."

Pete Carroll went so far as to say he was the MVP of the game. "I thought that Jon Ryan just had an incredible influence in this game," Carroll said. "He was banging the ball all day. If there was anybody who was MVP, it might have been Jon Ryan with his effort because he probably had the best day of his career."

Punters don't get a ton of fanfare, so this is some serious praise. As far as for this season, I don't know if the return yardage record is a goal or possibility, because of the newfound freedom to boot the ball further. Through three games, though, here are opponents' punt returns:

Green Bay: 0 returns, 0 yards
San Diego: 1 return, 6 yards
Denver: 2 returns, 15 yards

That 15-yard return! Dammit!

Last year, Jeremy Lane was the special teams' ace gunner for much of the year (you may remember he was considered as a Pro Bowler for his role there), but with Lane now on temporary IR, Ricardo Lockette is the next man up after doing well in the late part of the year. He's embraced his role. With a gusto.

Look at Ryan's first two punts:

4-5-SEA 25 (13:42 1st Quarter) J.Ryan punts 61 yards to DEN 14, Center-C.Gresham, fair catch by I.Burse.

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How many times have you seen a 61-yard punt get fair-caught?

Here's the 15-yard return, an anomaly for this team, and you can see why: missed tackles:

4-10-SEA 20 (1:27 1st Quarter) J.Ryan punts 66 yards to DEN 14, Center-C.Gresham. I.Burse to DEN 29 for 15 yards (K.Wright; D.Shead).

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Lockette is the first man there and just barely misses on the tackle. Kearse misses too, and if he had wrapped up, this would have been a two or three yard gain. This is a play that you see both of these guys make 9 times out of 10.

Lockette's speed to get 55-60 yards downfield while the ball is in the air, though, is honestly breathtaking. Going back to the offseason, this is something that Seahawks special teams coach Brian Schneider was reveling in as well.

From the TNT:

What the Seahawks won't forget about him from last week's game exemplifies why Lockett's got an inside track - literally - over other receivers to make the team at month's end: He ran his first 40 yards on one kickoff in 3.93 seconds.

Yes, a 3.93 40.

"That's the fastest I've ever had," Schneider said following Wednesday's practice at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center.

Sure, that's with a moving start off a kickoff. But consider the fastest 40-yard dash ever recorded at the NFL combine is 4.24 seconds by running back Chris Johnson in 2008. Or that most see anything near 4.0 flat as an extraordinary time for a running-start 40.

"I was with the Raiders and a couple times we broke 4 seconds. But never had a 3.9," said Schneider, a veteran of 14 seasons coaching special teams in college and the NFL. "And I don't think we broke 4 seconds (in Seattle) last year."

So, in other words, you're not imagining it, and he's not just another fast NFL player. He's absurdly fast, even for the NFL.

"Ricardo was a very good track runner - very good," Tyree Price, Lockette's track coach at Fort Valley State, told Seahawks.com in 2012. "As soon as he got here, you could see the potential. If he had stuck with track, he would have been at the (U.S. Olympic) Trials this year."

Of course, it's the combination of Ryan and Lockette that gives Seattle's special teams the opportunity to be elite this year. Ryan can also place punts inside the ten-yard line with relative ease.

4-6-DEN 41 (9:39 2nd Quarter) J.Ryan punts 34 yards to DEN 7, Center-C.Gresham, fair catch by I.Burse.

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4-1-50 (10:16 3rd Quarter) J.Ryan punts 43 yards to DEN 7, Center-C.Gresham, downed by SEA-J.Johnson

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INTIMIDATION FACTOR, HIDDEN YARDS:

Let's not beat around the bush on this one, Ricardo Lockette is legitimately bloodthirsty as a gunner.

"I played safety in high school (at Monroe High)," he said last year. "That was pretty much all I did was run around, bang into receivers. I didn't have that many receptions. But I had a lot of guys that I put out of the game."

You know that punt returners know Lockette by reputation. You know that this is in the back of their mind. I would assume that this makes them a little more likely to call for a fair catch rather than risk this happening:

To Burse's credit, he was pretty ballsy in not calling for fair catches in this game, and with his first return (above) it paid off. Here, it did not. Note the guy in the middle of the field that is supposed to cut Lockette off and try and push him out of the way of the return.

4-2-SEA 25 (6:40 3rd Quarter) J.Ryan punts 58 yards to DEN 17, Center-C.Gresham. I.Burse to DEN 17 for no gain (R.Lockette).

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THE DOUBLE TEAM:

One interesting thing that we've seen thus far is that Lockette is getting single coverage and the gunner to the opposite side is double-teamed. It will be something to watch this year to see if this continues. Last year, in Seattle's Week 17 win over the Rams, in which they gave up 57 yards in punt returns, St. Louis ended up doubling up on both gunners.

"I got double-teamed as usual, and they also double-teamed the other gunner,'' Jeremy Lane said at the time. "They usually don't do that. They usually double-team me and leave the other gunner single. But they ended up double-teaming both, so we didn't get any production out of either of us, so the inside guys had to make the plays, and they usually are not in that situation because I am usually the first one down there. So I guess that kind of got away from us. It caught us by surprise."

I imagine they have a plan in place this year if that does happen. The one thing that double teams on both sides does though is make you more susceptible to fake punts. Look for Seattle to try and exploit that if they see a look that gives them the matchups they want.

THE PUNT HEARD 'ROUND THE WORLD

Jesus, just look at this.

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I honestly don't know if I've ever seen this happen. It looked like Ryan was kicking off, but this was a punt. A 79-yard punt, officially. It looked more like 80 to me, but who's counting.

BOTTOM LINE

The bottom line with all of this is that the combination of Jon Ryan's leg and Ricardo Lockettes legs gives Seattle a great chance to win the field position game on a weekly basis. It allows Seattle to flip the field, and give their defense the leverage they like, which makes it harder on opposing offenses. Once Jeremy Lane returns mid-season, the combination of Lockette and Lane could be even deadlier.

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