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Eagles’ special teams keep rolling along despite ripple effect of injuries

Dave Fipp's special teams, which have been ranked No. 1 in the league two of the last four seasons, are off to another good start despite dealing with the ripple effect of top-of-the-roster injuries.

Eagles wide receiver DeAndre Carter runs back a kick off against Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, October 7, 2018 in Philadelphia. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles wide receiver DeAndre Carter runs back a kick off against Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, October 7, 2018 in Philadelphia. YONG KIM / Staff PhotographerRead moreYong Kim

When running back Jay Ajayi goes down with a season-ending knee injury, Dave Fipp feels offensive coordinator Mike Groh's pain.

When safety Rodney McLeod tears his MCL, and his replacement, Corey Graham, pops a hamstring, and nickel corner Sidney Jones' hamstring goes kerplunk as well, Fipp is right there alongside defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz sharing the Maalox.

"Injuries are probably the hardest on special teams,'' said Fipp, who is in his sixth season as the Eagles' special teams coordinator. "People say, 'Oh, you guys lost Ajayi, but that doesn't really affect you.' Well, losing Ajayi means Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood get pushed up. Now those guys are taking more snaps on offense, and we have to replace them on special teams.

"So, every injury affects us. It's been a challenge. But the guys have done a great job of stepping up. Last week, we had two new guards on our punt team. We had a different gunner on the outside. We had Malcolm Jenkins playing the personal protector [the upback on the punt team]. And we were going against Odell Beckham, and we netted 48 yards [per punt].

"We also had five new guys on kickoffs that hadn't been out there before. They only had two returns [on seven kickoffs], which I thought was a positive.''

There are a lot of positives with the Eagles' special teams through the first six games.

Cam Johnston leads the league in punting with a 50.2-yard gross average and is third in net average (44.3).

Kicker Jake Elliott has made 10 of 13 field-goal attempts and has the league's second-best touchback rate on kickoffs (82.8 percent).

DeAndre Carter, who is filling in for injured Darren Sproles on punt returns, is averaging an impressive 12.7 yards per return.

Both the punt coverage and kickoff coverage units are ranked in the top 10.

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So, things certainly could be a lot worse for Fipp, whose special teams have been ranked in the top five in the league three of the last four years, including No. 1 twice (in 2014 and 2016).

Johnston, who replaced ultra-dependable Donnie Jones, has a monster leg. Ten of his 29 punts have traveled 55 yards or longer. His current gross and net averages, if they hold, would be single-season franchise records.

But the Aussie native has a league-high five touchbacks and is only 20th in rate of punts inside the 20 (34.5 percent).

"That's a work in progress,'' Fipp said. "It's funny because you would say an Aussie kick [an end-over-end kick that punters use to prevent a roll on kicks near the goal line] is one of those things that all of those Aussie guys do best.

"But actually, to this point, it's been the thing he hasn't done the best as far as putting the ball down there in that part of the field. He's getting better at the situational kicks. I see him being able to do a great job with that at some point here. But that's one area he's [still] working on.''

Elliott, whose 61-yard field goal last year was the longest in franchise history, has yet to make one this season from longer than 37 yards. His three misses have been from 42, 54 and 55 yards.

Sproles, who is one of the league's best punt returners, injured a hamstring in Week 1 and has missed the last five games.

Fipp initially turned to Clement, who averaged just 2.8 yards on six attempts before injuring his quad in Week 3.

Carter was signed off the practice squad to replace him and has been a pleasant surprise. He had a 42-yard return in the Eagles' Week 4 overtime loss to Tennessee and had 23- and 19-yard returns last week against the Giants.

"He's done a great job for us,'' Fipp said. "He put the ball on the ground the other night [a fourth-quarter muff against the Giants that he recovered], but he's done a good job of catching the ball. His decision-making has been good. And the bottom line is he competes when the ball is in his hands.''

The 5-8, 190-pound wide receiver, who also has been returning kickoffs the last three games, will relinquish the punt-return duties to Sproles whenever the 35-year-old running back returns, which figures to be some time in the next few weeks.

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"DeAndre's done a great job,'' Fipp said. "That being said, it's hard to replace Darren Sproles. He's an outstanding player. We look forward to getting him back. He'll step right in back there when he comes back.''

The one area in which the Eagles have struggled is kickoff returns. Carter has averaged just 12.7 yards on six returns.

Fipp also has used Smallwood and wide receiver Shelton Gibson. But the Eagles are 26th in kickoff-return average (19.6) and 29th in average drive start on kickoffs (the 23.5-yard line).

With all of the changes in the kickoff rules, many teams, at least early on, have leaned toward taking the touchback and starting at the 25-yard line. The overall touchback rate in the league on kickoffs is up from 58.4 percent last year to 67.9 percent through the first six weeks this year.

The Eagles, however, already have 10 kickoff returns, which is just eight fewer than they had all last season.

"We're still feeling our way,'' Fipp said. "I've got to do a little bit better job of getting these guys in position. It's been probably our weakest link on special teams. We haven't been great in that area."

Fipp said he has spent time this week watching film of other teams and seeing what they're doing on kickoff returns.

"Hopefully, we can get that phase going,'' he said. "There's a lot to it: Who you have. Who you're blocking. Who the returners are. What returners work best for those [blockers]. There's a lot of combinations.

"It's been interesting.''