Special teams improvement pays off early for Houston

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HOUSTON — The Houston Texans have excelled in special teams in their first two games, and coach Gary Kubiak says that’s a product of finally having the right people in place.

Jacoby Jones returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown in the opener against Indianapolis, and offseason acquisition Danieal Manning had a 46-yard kickoff return against the Colts and a 43-yarder in Houston’s 23-13 win at Miami on Sunday.

Houston (2-0) ranks third in punt return average (25.4 yards) and second in kickoff return average (41 yards per game) heading into Sunday’s game at New Orleans (1-1). Last year, Houston ranked 27th in kickoff return average (19.8 yards) and 29th in punt return average (6.7 yards).

Injuries played a role in last season’s struggles, but Kubiak said the move to the 3-4 defense has also created more players equipped to block and defend kicks for special teams coordinator Joe Marciano .

“The way our team is built, we have more speed, a lot of linebackers,” Kubiak said. “And then we’ve got two dang good returners. So I just think Joe’s got a better group to work with and hopefully, we stay healthy. Last year, we were pretty beat up in that area, so off to a good start.”

Rookies Brooks Reed and Bryan Braman have joined the unit, and the team released special-teamers Xavier Adibi and Stanford Keglar.

“We’ve got two good returners, and we’ve kept the right guys to block for them,” Marciano said. “We let some veteran players go, some guys who’ve been around here. Hard decisions to make, but we wanted the younger guys. We’ve got the right chemistry, and we’ve got the right personalities.”

While Houston has shuffled some of its personnel in the return game, the team made it an offseason priority to re-sign Jones. Only Chicago’s Devin Hester has more punt return yardage since 2007, and Jones has four touchdowns in that span.

Jones thinks he’ll see more opportunities this year, with more continuity in front of him.

“Our chemistry is rolling right now,” he said. “It starts off in training camp, in the heat of the summer, getting a feel for each other, getting a feel for the way I run, the way Manning runs. And those guys, they want to block. They work their butts off to make the block, and then they’re running up-field with me. That’s the great thing about it.”

The Texans signed Manning as a free agent, landing not only a starting safety, but also one of the game’s elite kickoff return men. Manning leads the NFL in kickoff return average since 2006 (27.3 yards) and one of his first directives early in training camp was instilling confidence in Houston’s return unit.

“I told the guys, ‘I believe in you, no matter what anybody else says,’” Manning said. “They took a lot of slack [last year]. But I said, ‘We’re going to make something happen. We’ve got a good team, man. And you guys can play. It’s just a matter of believing.’ I’m big on belief.”

Manning and Jones have set a goal of leading the league in return yardage this year.

“It’s the hidden yards that nobody ever accounts for,” Manning said. “It always comes back around.”

Houston’s kickers have also done their job in the first two games.

Neil Rackers is 5 for 5 on field goal attempts. Rookie punter Brett Hartmann booted a team-record 69-yarder in Miami, and eight of his 12 kickoffs have been touchbacks.

The Texans decided to keep Hartmann and cut veteran Brad Maynard because Hartmann showed a stronger leg in training camp. Marciano said Hartmann is still raw, but showed his potential in Miami, averaging 48 yards on six punts.