John Bonamego says covering punts and kicks is top priority

Posted Jun 18, 2013

If special teams coordinator John Bonamego had to choose between a flashy return man or a very good coverage unit, he chooses the latter.

It was a simple, yet challenging, question posed to Lions special teams coordinator John Bonamego in a recent interview with

If you could only chose one, would you rather have a collection of very good coverage players or one very good return man?

Special Teams

"The first way to win is to not get beat," Bonamego said without hesitation. "It's a lot easier to lose games than it is win games."

Lions fans certainly know the truth to that statement.

Detroit became the first team in the modern era to allow a kickoff return and punt return for touchdowns in back-to-back losses to Tennessee and Minnesota Week 3 and 4 last season.

The Titans executed a perfect throwback lateral on a punt return in the first quarter and Tommie Campbell took it 65 yards for a touchdown. Darius Reynaud then raced 105 yards in the fourth quarter for a score in the Titans' 44-41 overtime victory.

The very next week, Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff 105 yards for the Vikings, and Marcus Sherels ran back the first punt of the second half 77 yards for a score, propelling the Vikings to a 20-13 victory.

"I'm going to always err towards making sure that we can protect the punter, make sure that we can cover those punts once the ball is punted, make sure we can cover kicks and make sure we can protect field goals," Bonamego said.

"Don't get me wrong, we expect, and I want, a great return game. But you take a touchback and start on the 20-yard line. As long as you're not turning the ball over, or making dumb mistakes in your return game, it's not going to get you beat."

That's one of the big reasons the Lions brought in players like running back Montell Owens and linebacker Cory Greenwood this offseason, to pair them with John Wendling and some of the other good special teams performers the Lions have in hopes of boosting the coverage units.

Owens, who's been to two Pro Bowls as a special teams performer, helps stem the loss of former Pro Bowl cover specialist Kassim Osgood, who signed with the 49ers this offseason.

"When you have breakdown in coverage or protection – punt protection or field goal protection or punt coverage or kick coverage – if you have issues in that area, that will cause you to lose games," Bonamego said.

Philosophically, Bonamego has brought the approach that he wants to take care of his house first. He's been coaching special teams in the NFL since 1999 and he teaches fundamentals and mistake-free football.

A bad special teams breakdown can have such a derailing effect on a team – as the Lions witnessed firsthand last season.

There has been a lot of interest this spring in who might win the punt and kickoff return duties, and Lions have a number of good return candidates in Steven Miller, Patrick Edwards, Ryan Broyles, Reggie Bush, Micheal Spurlock and others.

However, first things first, no mistakes in the coverage game.

"It's just a different way," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said of the implementation this offseason of Bonamego's scheme.

"We meet a little bit differently. On the field, we break practice up a little differently. The guys have done a good job responding to all that. That work will pay off when we get to training camp, when we get to preseason games and it will pay off once we get to the season."