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Ryan hangs 'em high, to the point of no return

Seattle punt team could be best ever

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RENTON, Wash. -- For most of his career, Jon Ryan's task was to change field position with booming punts.

And then the Seattle Seahawks decided they wanted to change their punting approach. They wanted Ryan to pull back and use hang time and directional punting to take away the danger of giving up long returns.

"That's been my whole career is going after the ball and smashing it. So it's a little bit different," Ryan said. "For me, it's taking the driver out of my hands a little bit. It seems to be working, so I'm not going to complain."

The Seahawks have been exceptional with achieving their goal this season. Entering the season finale against St. Louis, the Seahawks have allowed only 25 punt return yards on 16 returns this season. They're on pace to set an NFL record for fewest return yards allowed in a 16-game season.

It's an obscure record but highlights the importance Seattle has put on its special teams.

"We're very confident that we can control that and do a great job there, but you have to have the consistency of the coverage," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "But Jon has really been the key factor and continuing to be so solid that we know where the ball is going and we've been able to control that factor."

Ryan has been among the most consistent punters in the league ever since coming to Seattle in 2008. He averaged more than 45 yards in four of his previous five seasons with the Seahawks. His net average of 40.8 yards last season was a franchise record.

But the plan changed for this season. Seattle didn't want the booming kicks anymore. It wanted control and direction, and an opportunity to limit the number of returns.

The results are two-fold. Ryan's average is down nearly four yards per punt and on the verge of a career-low. But through a combination of the increased hang time and solid cover downfield, the Seahawks have allowed only 16 returns all season. The 25 yards in returns Seattle has allowed include 10 yards to Carolina in the season opener, seven to St. Louis and six last week to Arizona.

Seattle had allowed a total of 19 return yards entering last week, but 6 yards on a two returns by Arizona's Patrick Peterson pushed Seattle past the NFL record of 22 yards allowed by the 1967 Green Bay Packers in a 14-game season.

The record for a 16-game season is 49 yards by Atlanta in 2008.

"We take a lot of pride in that. When you look at our role and what we do and how we help our team we want to flip the field, we want to make it a long field for the defence to go out there and play," Seattle reserve safety Chris Maragos said.

The change for Ryan was subtle. He had become adept at punting end-over-end, typically used when he was trying to have full distance control on his kicks and have them downed inside an opponents' 20-yard line. What Seattle decided to do this season was to punt that way on a regular basis. It's now normal for Ryan to punt deep in his own end and rather than trying to get the kick to spin in a spiral for maximum distance, will still be in the end-over-end fashion.

"We're able to get enough guys out in coverage to where even if they've got time to return it we've got two or three guys right in his face forcing him to make the catch," Maragos said. "We've got guys who really understand special teams. I think that's important."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2013 C4

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