kenjon barner

Kenjon Barner named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week

Kenjon Barner named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week

Kenjon Barner has been back with the Eagles for just a couple weeks, but he already won an award. 

Barner has been named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance Sunday against the Cardinals in the Eagles' 34-7 win. 

Barner finished the day with 110 punt return yards, which is the fourth-most ever by an Eagles' player. For as good as Darren Sproles has been for the Birds in the last few years, he surpassed 110 just once. That came in the Eagles' 2015 win in New England. 

In fact, Barner's 110 punt return yards are the fourth-most in a game in team history. Alvin Haymond had 140 in 1968, Sproles had 115 in 2015, Vai Sikahema had 111 in 1992 and Barner had 110 Sunday. 

Most of Barner's punt return yards came on a 76-yard return in the second quarter (see the breakdown here). Barner wasn't able to get into the end zone but the Eagles scored just a few plays later to put them up 14-0. 

Barner won the award but the entire Eagles' special teams unit had a great and consistent day against the Cardinals. 

"It was just a good day for our special teams," special teams ace Chris Maragos said. "Really able to help our team win." 

This is the second time an Eagle has won the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week award. Kicker Jake Elliott won it after he booted a 61-yard game-winner against the Giants. 

Barner joined Sproles (2015, 2014 twice), DeSean Jackson (2009 twice), Brian Westbrook (2003) and Brian Mitchell (2000, 2002) as Eagles punt returners to win a special teams player of the week award. 

Barner, 28, was re-signed by the Eagles on Sept. 26 after Sproles went down with a season-ending injury. Barner spent 2014-16 with the Eagles after he was traded from the Panthers. He played minimally in his first stint with the Eagles but might have found a home as a punt returner this time around.

Eagles Film Review: How special teams sparked win vs. Cards

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NFL

Eagles Film Review: How special teams sparked win vs. Cards

It's the third of football that gets overlooked the most. Just not in Philadelphia. 

The Eagles have prided themselves on having one of the best special teams units in the league since the arrival of Dave Fipp in 2013. It wasn't surprising at all when Doug Pederson kept Fipp on the staff last year. That decision was a no-brainer. 

Sunday's 34-7 win over the Cardinals was a true team win, in that all three phases really played a role. That definitely includes special teams. 

Because while Carson Wentz and the defense get all the love, Fipp's units had one of their finest games on Sunday. They had big returns, blocked a field goal, made their own kicks and even pinned the Cardinals deep. 

Maybe the Eagles have had better days on special teams, but it would be hard to have a more complete special teams performance. 

"It was just a good day for our special teams," special teams ace Chris Maragos said. "Really able to help our team win." 

Here's a look at three big-time plays from Sunday: 

We'll go in chronological order, which means Kenjon Barner's big 76-yard punt return is up first in the first quarter. In the game, Barner had three punt returns for 110 yards. As great as Darren Sproles has been as a returner over the last few years, he put up that many punt return yards just once with the Eagles. 

The ball is about to be punted away by three-time Pro Bowler Andy Lee. You'll notice at the bottom of the screen that Corey Graham and Dexter McDougle have completely wrecked the gunner's pursuit of the play. 

Barner catches the ball inside the 10-yard line, a bit of a gamble, but it was a booming 56-yard kick, so he has some space. McDougle got downfield to continue to block the gunner on the near side of the field and Barner has room to work with. 

This is where Barner starts to make it happen by himself. After all, most punt returners need to make at least one guy miss on their own. Barner makes a couple miss. Right here, he's about to cut this thing back up the sideline and then inside to find a ton more room. Give credit to receiver Marcus Johnson who held up and stopped blocking to avoid a blocking in the back. His man fell on the play and if Johnson still had hands on him a flag would have negated this whole thing. 

Barner already made a few guys miss and here comes the poor long snapper, Aaron Brewer. He's not equipped to take down Barner, who is about to cut back inside for a huge gain. Brewer was actually injured on the play and had to leave the game. 

Once Barner gets past Brewer, there's a ton of open space. Credit Cardinals receiver Brittan Golden for hustling on the play and making a touchdown-saving tackle. According to NFL's Next Gen Stats, Barner ran a total of 114.2 yards on the play and Golden ran 131.8 to tackle him. 

Three plays later, Wentz hit Zach Ertz for a 11-yard touchdown to put the Eagles up 14-0. It doesn't happen that easily without this big play. 

"He had a heckuva return, man," Maragos said. "He did it all." 

This next play is the 51-yard field goal attempt the Cardinals tried at the end of the first half. The Eagles were up 21-7 at this point, but this was a chance for Arizona to finish out the half scoring the last 10 points. Didn't happen. Patrick Robinson (circled) is about to get around the corner and make a play. 

Malcolm Jenkins, who lined up to Robinson's right, actually makes the play. He rushes so hard inside that Jared Veldheer, who struggled against Brandon Graham at right tackle all day, has to get inside to block him. Veldheer isn't going to touch Robinson. 

The rest is just an extremely athletic play from the veteran cornerback Robinson. He nearly goes full Superman to block this one. He doesn't need to leave his feet but Robinson leans in hard to get a big piece of it. 

Instead of going into the half on a 10-0 run, the Cardinals went into the locker room on this note. To start the third quarter, the Eagles drove down the field and kicked a field goal of their own. That was a six-point swing that made it almost impossible for the Cardinals to come back. 

After Jake Elliott made a 36-yard field goal to put the Eagles up 24-7, he gets set to kick it off. In this game, the Eagles did something a little different. Instead of kicking balls deep into the end zone to force touchbacks, Malcolm Jenkins said the players "challenged" the coaches to let them make plays. So Elliott took something off most of his kickoffs and allowed his group to make plays. They did. 

The placement of this ball from Elliott was masterful. It landed just inside the goal line, which made return man Kerwynn Williams think about it. He stuttered leaving the end zone, which was a fatal mistake. Two of the Eagles' best special teams players -- Kamu Grugier-Hill and Chris Maragos -- are coming in hot. 

As Williams starts to come out of the end zone, Grugier-Hill and Maragos (both circled) have already beaten their blockers and have just the upback in their way. He's not going to be able to stop them. 

Grugier-Hill was coming head on and forced Williams to bounce to this left. That's where Maragos simply went around the upback and, with the help of McDougle, took down Williams at the 13-yard line. Aside from two punts that dropped the ball at their own 10-yard line, this was the worst starting position of the day for the Cards. 

The Cardinals' average starting position on Sunday was at their own 19-yard line and their average starting position on kickoffs was at their own 21-yard line. The Eagles gambled a little on Sunday, but it paid off. 

"I think for us, we've got guys that take a lot of pride in what they do and we've got a lot of talent out there," Maragos said. "And anytime we can get out there and cover and spark our team and give them a bit of excitement and start them backed up, it changes the way their offense is going to attack our defense. 

"And on the flip side of that too, if our defense can get 3-and-outs, which they did, they're punting the ball back to us and now we're getting better field position." 

After Sunday's game, Wentz said he "absolutely" enjoys wins more when all three phases play a role. That's what happened against the Cardinals. While offense and defense normally get all the love, the Eagles' special teams unit continues to thrive. 

Kenjon Barner displaying return skills passed down by Darren Sproles

Kenjon Barner displaying return skills passed down by Darren Sproles

The Eagles' punt-return unit takes the field. Darren Sproles catches the football, makes a man miss, and he’s off to the races again.

Only thing is ... it wasn't Sproles on Sunday vs. Arizona. On Sunday, it was Kenjon Barner.

Barner ripped off a 76-yard return and was finally pulled down at the 15-yard line, setting up an Eagles touchdown three plays later. And like so many huge returns and momentum shifts before, it may not have happened without Sproles.

Who do you think taught Barner that?

“I studied Sproles, I studied Devin Hester, even going back to Dante Hall, really studied guys like that,” Barner said Sunday after the Eagles’ 34-7 win over the Cardinals. “Usually, if you make that first guy miss, you can go a long way.

“Watching Sproles, being here with Sproles, it’s very rare that first guy is ever going to touch me. Very rare. If you make that first guy miss, you can be off to the races.”

Barner has demonstrated an innate ability in the return game going back to his days at Oregon, taking a kickoff back as a freshman, then a punt as a sophomore. But it wasn’t until he joined the Eagles and began watching Sproles from up close and personal that Barner began to realize his full potential.

Instincts and athleticism were never the issue. Barner said he learned how to approach the return game from Sproles.

“Prior to me getting here and being around Sproles, I just went out there,” Barner said of his pregame routine. “I caught punts from our punter. I didn’t really pay attention to the other team’s punter. Obviously, you watch film on them, but I didn’t actually see him kick. I would just catch our punter’s punts and carry on.

“[Sproles] taught me how to be a professional about it, how to study. What you see on film may not be what you see on the field. So catching punts from our punter initially, getting warmed up, but then going down and watching their punter. Seeing how he’s hitting the ball, seeing how he’s hitting his plus-50 kicks, seeing how deep he’s kicking it, seeing if he’s mishitting balls — just really paying attention to everything their punter is doing.”

In 2015, one year after he first joined the Eagles in a trade from the Carolina Panthers, Barner had a preseason to remember, returning two punts for touchdowns. He wound up making the team out of training camp and stuck for two seasons, but saw limited opportunities behind Sproles and was allowed to depart as a free agent this past offseaon.

The Eagles simply didn’t need another return man until Sproles suffered a season-ending injury. But when the call came, Barner was beyond prepared to step into that role.

“Watching film, you know (Cardinals punter) Andy Lee’s track record,” Barner said. “You know he’s going to kick the ball. You know he’s going to boom it. You know you’re going to have an opportunity.

“But aside from that, I needed to get a visual for myself up close and personal. Pregame, I was back there with the Cardinals on their side of the field. I’m approaching the ball like — I’m not going to catch it, but I’m getting behind their players while they’re catching it just so I can see it, just to get a feel for it, and that’s what Sproles taught me.”

Less than two weeks into his Eagles return, Barner felt as though he finally got a monkey off his back. The only thing that was missing was a touchdown.

“My guys up front just did a great job,” Barner said. “They opened holes for me, they opened lanes for me, allowed me to see the field. I was able to make a guy miss, cut back.

“I would’ve liked to finish that play a lot different.”

The offense was able to finish what Barner started, but that return against the Cardinals did a lot more than help put six points on the board. It provided the entire team — and all of Lincoln Financial Field for that matter — with an infusion of energy.

“Uplifts the whole team and puts us in a great field position offensively,” said Eagles coach Doug Pederson. “Thought he did an outstanding job there today in the return game and also as a runner.

“Some of the returns that we got, I think it just kept injecting juice into the team, into the atmosphere,” said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins.

There’s no way to replace a three-time Pro Bowler like Sproles. His role on offense is almost impossible to replicate. Yet, at least in the return game, the Eagles have somebody who has been shadowing Sproles for years in Barner.

Barner is just grateful for the opportunity, not only to finally return kicks in a meaningful NFL game, but also to be back with the Eagles.

“It’s just in the short time that I’ve been here — two weeks now — guys are closer,” Barner said. “Guys have a lot of belief in each other. Not that they didn’t have belief in each other last year, but I think guys having a year in Doug’s system, a year under him getting comfortable with his coaching style, getting comfortable with each other.

“I think that’s the biggest difference. Guys really knowing what we have in this locker room, knowing what we’re capable of as a team.”