Almost 25 months after Marcus Thigpen, playing for the Miami Dolphins returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in November of 2012, Thigpen, who has been on Buffalo’s roster for only three weeks, returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown on Sunday versus Green Bay to help Buffalo get a win.
Thigpen spent two seasons (2012-2013) with Miami, was on the New England Patriots’ practice squad from September 3 to the middle of September, and spent some more time with the Dolphins on their practice squad from the end of September to the end of October. After spending the next month on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad and active roster, Thigpen was claimed off waivers on November 26, and has been the team’s punt returner since, replacing Fred Jackson to allow the veteran running back to focus on offense.
Thigpen was listed as a limited participant in practice on Thursday with a foot injury, though head coach Doug Marrone said Thigpen will be ready to go on Sunday, barring any setbacks. Marrone talked about Thigpen’s impact on the team today.
“When we lost Leodis [McKelvin] for the year, Fred [Jackson] was back there and he was injured,” said Marrone on the punt returner situation before Thigpen arrived. “We were on the lookout to bring someone in, as a part of our plan to try to get better and win. Fortunate for us, I think Tampa Bay wound up releasing him and we wound up getting him. He’s a guy that’s done it. He’s been in this league and that’s what he’s done. He’s done kickoffs, he’s done punts and he’s a very good punt returner. We know that, with the way we were playing, that’s a big part of what gives us an ability to win, with the field position.”
The impact of a big-time special teams play, along with consistent play on that side of the ball in terms of few coverage breakdowns, kicker Dan Carpenter with a league-high 32 field goals, and punter Colton Schmidt with 29 punts inside the 20, which ties for the league-lead, has helped immensely this season, helping Buffalo re-establish itself as a team with great special teams.
“When you get a team and set the team, the most important thing is making sure that all three phases and all three coordinators understand, going into a game, how we’re going to win this game,” said Marrone. “Obviously, we all know that you’ve got to score one more point than the opposing team, but there’s a lot more to it than that. With the way we’ve been playing, field position is a big thing for us and we talk about it every week with our players, especially on special teams.”
While the special teams and defense (No.5 in total defense and No. 4 in scoring) have been outstanding this season, the offense is just 18th in scoring (21.6 points per game), 19th in passing yards (224.4 yards per game), 23rd in rushing (97.5 yards per game), and 23rd in total offense. While the circumstances of a quarterback change, an offensive line that had had some issues on the interior due to bad guard play, along with left tackle Cordy Glenn not as dominant as last season, and a group of young receivers still trying to find their way to be consistent, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has been criticized for a lack of creativity in play-calling and lack of results.
While Hackett does call the plays, Marrone said if there is any blame, it’s on him, not the offensive coordinator.
“If it was there was a problem with one thing, it would be very easy to fix,” said Marrone. “It’s really collective. That’s probably 99 percent of all the problems that occur when you’re on a team. Sometimes a play will point out somebody, but at the end of the day when you’re evaluating all the plays, it’s just a matter of trying to get 11 guys to be as efficient as they can. Then, when everyone has a clean opportunity to get it done, does that player get it done or not? That’s how you evaluate it. For us, it’s been up and down and we’re just going to continue to try to get better.”
In terms of how he would evaluate Hackett’s performance this year and through two seasons, Marrone didn’t get into specifics about what will happen beyond this season, but was willing to point out some unique challenges the unit has faced in his tenure.
“Those are things that I would talk with Nathaniel about,” said Marrone. “We go through a process after the season, like everybody knows. We’ll sit down and talk. It’s been two years now. We’ve played I don’t know how many quarterbacks. We’re playing with a quarterback that wasn’t in our training camp. I think all of those things are pretty big challenges when you’re trying to get things going from an offensive standpoint.”
A place of immense criticism of Hackett has been how he used C.J. Spiller as more of an inside runner than on the outside. If Spiller does return to the field, which is unclear at this point, how the team utilizes a four-headed monster of Spiller, Jackson, Bryce Brown and Boobie Dixon in the backfield against Oakland, or decide to go to a three-man backfield will be interesting.
“I think he looks good,” said Marrone. “He really does. It’s just a matter of waiting until the end of the week and making a move there. The only concern I have is – it’s not really being in shape, but to be able to play and run plays in and out, in and out, in and out and to make sure his conditioning is right at that level. It seems to be okay. I think it will just get better. I know he looks explosive. He’s moving well.”
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