- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 7, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Placing heavy emphasis on special teams in the offseason and in practice has paid off for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Their special teams have already scored four touchdowns - all in the last three games. They’ve returned blocked punts for touchdowns two weeks in a row and they have TDs on kickoff and punt returns.

Those scores made a difference in a 3-point win over Washington and a 6-point win over St. Louis. Add in Cody Parkey’s 36-yard field goal to beat Indianapolis and the Eagles are 4-1 instead of 1-4 because of their special teams.

“The game is usually coming down to a possession or two,” coach Chip Kelly said. “The hidden yardage that can be found in the special teams game is something that I think you need to address because it’s the one play where you can drastically change field position one way or another, whether it be with a good return or whether it be with a great cover.”

The Eagles targeted players to improve their special teams in free agency, signing Chris Maragos away from defending Super Bowl champion Seattle and Bryan Braman from Houston. Trey Burton, another standout, was signed as a rookie free agent. James Casey and Brad Smith, two other key contributors, were signed last year.

Casey blocked the punt that Maragos returned 10 yards for a TD against the Rams. Burton blocked the punt that Smith recovered in the end zone for a TD against the 49ers. Darren Sproles, another offseason acquisition, had an 82-yard punt return for a score in San Francisco.

“It’s kind of a swagger thing on special teams where once some guys start making some plays, you want to go out there and make some plays,” Casey said. “Each player wants to go out there and do something special.”

The Eagles became the first team since Baltimore in 2002 to score TDs on a blocked punt in consecutive games. They also have three defensive touchdowns, giving them seven non-offensive TDs in the first five games. They’re the only team since 1970 with that many through five games.

“We don’t feel like it’s rare because we put a lot of work in,” Maragos said. “We have guys who expect to be great and expect to do good things and we work really hard in our technique and the things that we need to do.”

Kelly is known as an offensive mastermind with innovative ideas such as his fast-paced practices, up-tempo offense and using sports science to help players. But one thing often overlooked is the way Kelly incorporates special teams within a practice rather than holding those sessions before or after. The Eagles work on special teams during in at least two of their practice periods every day.

“It just makes sense to spend a lot of time on special teams and to make sure that you can get any advantage you can from a special teams standpoint,” Kelly said. “Some people practice at the beginning of practice. Some people practice at the end of practice. There’s a million different theories. Our practice format is what we set up when we were at Oregon and we are very, very similar to what we did there and that’s what we felt is the best way to do it.”

Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp deserves much of the credit for his unit’s performance. The Eagles stress to players when they arrive for their first practice that the only way for a non-starter to make the team is to prove himself valuable on special teams.

“On a lot of teams where you have guys, maybe a starter, who has to play special teams and isn’t really into it because they know they have to go out on defense or offense, but we have a really special group of guys,” Casey said. “We have a lot of really good players who really take pride in it and work on it all week long. We know we are going to have a target on our back probably here on out. Teams will be giving us their best effort coming at us but at the same time we are going to keep going at them, too.”


AP NFL websites: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL


Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_RobMaaddi

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