WITH all the focus the past week on the stellar play of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence and continuing struggles of the offence, the play of the club's special teams thus far in 2013 has flown a bit under the radar.
In part, that's a function of the nature of special teams, which generally get noticed only when things go spectacularly wrong. And, with a few notable exceptions, things have been mostly going right for the Bombers special teams in 2012 under new coordinator Craig Dickenson.
For starters, there's been the play of punter Mike Renaud, who's gone in the span of a month from being in the fight of his life just to keep his job to being the second-leading punter in the entire CFL heading into Week 3.
After beating back challenges from three others during training camp, Renaud is averaging 47.9 yards per kick through the first two weeks. That's second only to Saskatchewan's Ricky Schmitt and well above his much-more-modest 42.0-yard average during his first four seasons in Winnipeg.
"I changed my off-season workouts and it's translating into a deeper ball and higher," Renaud said Thursday after his club's final full practice at Investors Group Field in advance of this Saturday night's date in Guelph, Ont., with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
"I've always taken pride in the directional part of my game and it was time to switch focus and work on my strength. And now, combining the two, I find I'm kicking it high and far, but also directionally and on a line drive if need be."
Hats off, said Bombers head coach Tim Burke.
"You've got to give credit to Mike," said Burke. "He's answered the challenge and done a great job."
Meanwhile, Bombers placekicker Justin Palardy appears to have picked up right where he left off in 2012, a season in which he tied the franchise record for field goal accuracy at 86.7 per cent. Palardy has made good on four of five field goal attempts this season -- including a long of 48 yards. And the lone miss -- a 27-yard chip shot against Montreal last week -- came in exceptional circumstances.
Palardy explained that just as he was walking off his steps in the final moments before the 27-yard attempt, an official yelled at him to buckle his second chinstrap.
Palardy explained he's never before buckled the second strap on his helmet -- not in high school, university or the CFL -- and the unexpected demand to suddenly change what had become a bit of a superstition for him threw him off on the ensuing kick.
"I've always just played with one chinstrap done up," explained Palardy. "But the rulebook says you're supposed to have both done up and the ref called me out on it. And apparently now I have to keep both chinstraps buckled up all the time.
"But no excuses -- it's a 27-yard field goal. I've still got to knock that through. What I should have done is gather myself and go back and take my steps again."
And finally, there's been the play of the club's return and coverage teams.
While the coverage team gave up a 78-yard punt return for a TD to Montreal in Week 1 and a 37-yard punt return in Week 2, the return team has also had some successes, including a Demond Washington punt return in Week 1 that went for 80 yards and a TD.
You'd think that Dickenson would regard the play of his return and coverage teams as a wash so far this season and then rate the rest as pretty good to excellent.
But that would be to underestimate the fastidiousness of a special teams co-ordinator, who is highly regarded throughout the CFL precisely because he is content with nothing other than perfection.
"It's a work in progress. Definitely. There's been some really nice things, but there have also been some things that we've got to work on," said Dickenson.
"Mike has been good all camp and he's carried it right through into the regular season... and I'm happy with Justin, but there's more in the tank with him. He knows he's got to get better, just like everyone else."
Dickenson said he'd like to see Palardy do a better job on kickoffs and also thinks he needs work on his onside kickoffs.
And the return and coverage teams? "I'm not pleased," said Dickenson. "We've got to get better on coverage all the way around."
They'd better get there quick -- Hamilton returner Lindsey Lamar leads the league in kickoff returns, including a 104-yarder, but also had four fumbles last week.
And Winnipeg's return game? "The return team's been better, but same thing -- in terms of performance, we've got a long way to go," said Dickenson.
Dickenson said he's liked what he's seen so far out of Aaron Woods -- the 5-6 returner the Bombers signed just this week, but hinted strongly that it will be at least another week before Woods gets some playing time.