Punters Are People Too… Weird, Weird People

There comes a time in every football coach’s career where he has to answer questions about his specialists. Maybe his kicker shanked an easy kick to tie a game. Maybe his punter boomed a 75-yarder that no one saw coming. Regardless of the situation, nearly every coach’s answer begins almost the exact same way: “Well, kickers are weird.”

[Disclosure: It would be wrong to say that specialists are entirely disliked. Despite having absolutely no experience in student government, I ran on a platform consisting entirely of the slogan “You Gotta Vote Zodda” and managed to turn my 100+ teammates into single-issue voters, finishing second in the race for Student Assembly Vice President.]

Kickers and punters occupy a unique niche on a football team. They are typically off the field and out of sight for the vast majority of practices and games. And yet they are depended on not only to score points, but to win the battle of field position throughout a game, often with only a handful of chances. It is this mixture of isolation and importance that often leaves coaches with little to say regarding how they really feel about their kickers. Fortunately, I don’t have to say anything. The film of the play we’ll be looking at speaks loudly enough on its own.

On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers led the Miami Dolphins by a score of 10-3 with 1:12 remaining in the first half. Miami’s defense held strong on a 3rd-and-3 from their own 48-yard line to force a Green Bay punt. The Packers punt team trotted onto the field with the intention of pinning the Dolphins offense deep in their own territory.

This still shows the Packers lined up to punt in a standard punt formation with seven “linemen” and a personal protector in front of the punter:

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Miami shows eight men at or near the line of scrimmage, indicating that they will attempt to bring pressure. Including the personal protector, the Packers have enough men to match up with every potential rusher, as indicated in yellow.

Punt return units will typically employ a punt block formation similar to this one either near the midfield mark or when they have an opponent backed up deep in their own territory. In those areas of the field, trying to generate a momentum-changing block is more important than potentially picking up extra yardage on the return.

The next still shows the play just after the ball is snapped:

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Miami brings all eight rushers and the Packers initially appear to have the rush well-blocked. There are only two areas of potential concern that show up at this point. The first is in the left of the frame. Packers blocker Sean Richardson (#28, circled in red) appears to take on the rusher second from the outside. This may potentially leave this area of the line vulnerable to a stunt as the play continues to develop, but there is no issue at this point.

In the center of the line, Jayrone Elliott (#91, highlighted in yellow) has taken on the man directly in front of him, leaving personal protector John Kuhn (#30) to take on the player to his outside. While it does appear that they are going to be able to match up with these men, this move is typically not advised. This strategy tends to shift the personal protector away from the center of the field, where he may be able to help out in other areas of the line.

Shortly after, the left side of the line now appears to have the situation under control:

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Richardson has chipped his man down into the reach of the blocker inside of him, who has established strong inside leverage and has secured the rusher. Richardson now looks to return his focus to the outside rusher, highlighted in blue.

On the inside of the line, Elliott has completely taken his man out of the play, most likely by holding him. Highlighted in red, Elliott has his left arm wrapped around the torso of the Miami rusher. While this technique is effective in this case, it is a potential issue and should be addressed by the special teams coach. The remainder of the right side of the line is matched up in strong man-blocking with no imminent danger at this point. So: How well-blocked are the Dolphin rushers?

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With punter Tim Masthay approximately a third of the way through his punt, there is no one within ten yards of him, and seven of the eight Dolphins in the frame are completely walled-off by the Green Bay blockers. Only the far left edge rusher is still not accounted for, and he is nearly fifteen yards away from Masthay at this point with Richardson still in position to recover his block by opening his hips.

As the play continues to develop, the outside right rusher for the Dolphins (highlighted in blue) has sprung around the edge of his blocker. He is still nearly five yards from Masthay at this point, and significantly outside of his punting lane, but he is now the most immediate threat to the punt:

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On the left side of the line, although Richardson is still turned inward and has not engaged the free man, we can see that this rusher is still over eight yards away from Masthay, and presents no danger to the punt at this point; he is effectively eliminated from the play.

Masthay gets the kick away in 1.95 seconds, which is below what most special teams coaches will recommend as a maximum get-off time; typical snap-to-kick times for punt teams in the NFL should be between 1.8 and 2.1 seconds, with anything under two seconds typically being good enough to avoid being blocked unless massive failure occurs:

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By this point in the breakdown, it should be evident why teams typically avoid all-out punt block attempts unless the field position dictates they use it. There are six Miami players (circled in red) who are behind the Packers punt unit now advancing down the field to make the potential tackle. There is only one Dolphins player (highlighted in blue) who is in a position to make a block on a Packer. By selling out for the block, Miami has left their returner with nearly no blocking and an oncoming Packers cover team.

Unfortunately, Masthay’s punt leaves a little to be desired:

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Highlighted in red, the ball bounces at the two yard line. On the surface, this would appear to be a great punt. However, as opposed to utilizing a higher trajectory in order to shorten the kick and give his coverage team a chance to get under the ball, Masthay instead simply punted as if he were hitting a chip shot in golf, as opposed to a full swing with a pitching wedge. The result is a kick that had only 3.35 seconds of hang time, which is nearly a full second less than you would typically like to see. As a result, the nearest Packer is still five yards from the ball when it initially bounces, and there are no other Packers within fifteen yards of the ball.

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The Packer closest to the ball makes a tremendous effort to attempt to save it from going in the end zone. In fact, he comes within inches of saving the ball, but unfortunately cannot prevent it from crossing the plane of the goal line.

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Both referees now have their arms in mid-wave, indicating a touchback. Despite a nearly perfectly-executed play, the punt from Masthay has resulted in a touchback, giving the punt a gain of 28 net yards, despite traveling 48-yards.

Plays like this are why specialists occupy a “weird” place on the football team. While Miami was not able to capitalize on the error by Masthay, it nevertheless opened the door for a Miami team that should have been firmly pinned deep in its own territory. This punt will be recorded as a 48-yard kick by Masthay, and most likely will help to boost his overall punting average for the season. However, when factoring in the situation and the net yardage the Packers gained, this play would clearly be graded out as a minus for Masthay. Despite nearly every other member of the punt team executing correctly, Masthay has essentially rendered their performance useless due to this ball carrying into the end zone.

Loneliness ensues. Fade to black.

Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.

Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.

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