Some of the most important, game-changing plays in the NFL and college football take place on special teams. Kick returns, punt returns, blocked kicks, the audacious fake punt return – these plays are often the difference between winning and losing.
Previously we detailed the abomination that was the Patriots’ punt attempt after their first series against the Dolphins. This week, I’m happy to report that we are once again proud to feature Miami in our Special Teams Play of the Week, though unfortunately for them, as victims of a 102-yard kickoff return by C.J. Spiller. That sterling runback also earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors from the NFL for Spiller, but as we’ll see he had plenty of help from his opponents.
With 9:35 left the in the 3rd quarter, Miami kicker Caleb Sturgis had just knocked through a 34-yard field goal to bring the Dolphins to within six points of the Bills. This was a critical point in the game, as a stop by Miami would allow them to continue a comeback and possibly win the game. Instead, what happened was one of the worst examples of kickoff coverage possible by the Dolphins.
Miami starts lined up in typical kickoff formation with five men on each side of the kicker, also known as a 5×5 formation. NFL rules allow for up to six players to be on either side of the kicker, but most teams typically employ a 5×5 formation to disguise where they may be kicking the ball. Buffalo starts off with six men between the 50-yard line and their own 45-yard line as their first line of blockers, with four other blockers positioned deeper and Spiller stationed 5 yards deep in his end zone.
This next still is from about two seconds after Sturgis has kicked the ball. Miami is beginning to head down the field with the coverage team roughly 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. Notice how one of the Buffalo “linemen” has begun to hunt for the R5 of Miami, beginning to push him slightly off his lane by a little more than a yard. Why is this important? Because the single most vital thing for the kicking team is to remain in their lanes at all times. Maintaining position in the assigned lane allows the backside of the play to pinch, forcing it in the direction they want the return to go. In this case the R4 through R1 are all pinching down towards where the ball was kicked, while R5 is flaring out in the opposite direction.
Here is where things really begin to break down. On the right side of the line, we see the Miami players squeezing down to force Spiller to the left. However, notice that R5 for Miami now has about a 7-yard gap between him and the L5. A gap this large creates two issues. The first is the potential for a return through this gap, which does not occur here. But the second is that the R5 is now out of the play in terms of containing the run if it instead reverses course to the left. This becomes the critical mistake.
Highlighted below in the blue circle at left we see a double team developing on the L4. Unfortunately for Miami, as we will see shortly, the L4 ends up being washed completely out of bounds by the double team. He fails to maintain his lane assignment and is pushed fifteen yards outside of his lane and completely off the field. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he is also washed into the L3 lane, preventing him from getting over to that gap as well. This is slightly important as the run from Spiller comes directly up this gap.
We now see the double team on L4 has pushed him out of his lane just inside the numbers, and he has thereby been washed completely outside the numbers. Further, we see L3 being ensnared by this block, which prevents him from getting into Spiller’s lane of travel (indicated by the orange arrow.)
Another double team also develops, forcing L5 to his left. This appears to be the gap which Spiller is heading towards. Standard technique for kickoff coverage dictates that if a player feels he is being forced one way, he attempts to cut into the block by going to the butt-side of the blocker. Miami’s L5 attempts to do this instead of picking his head up and realizing that the ball is heading right for him. Notice that R5 continues to be out of position to back the play up in any way and is now walled off by a Buffalo blocker. To sum up, this player failed to use proper technique, lost track of the ball, and was greatly responsible for the ensuing return.
Spiller has now hit the hole that was created for him, heading straight up the seam and into a foot race with the kicker, who has a 0% chance of winning it. On the left side of the screen, you will see the L4 is now being blocked out of bounds and is approximately twenty yards out of his lane. His Monday afternoon most likely consisted of this play being shown repeatedly in front of the entire team as an example of what not to do on kickoff coverage.
Kickoff coverage, just like the punt protection we discussed last week, depends on each man executing his assignment at the highest level. If there is just one mistake, such as R5 being out of position, a team can typically recover from it. But as in punt protection, if the mistakes pile up it becomes very easy for the opposing team to notch a big play that can change the momentum of the game.
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