Measuring special teams effectiveness with the stats can be tricky. There’s only one way to know which units are consistently performing at a high-level and which are barely performing: How many times has Chuck Zodda broken down your film? The Philadelphia Eagles make their third appearance this season; previously, Darren Sproles’s punt return and James Casey’s punt block earned that honor.
The Eagles special teams are not being lauded for their gamesmanship or execution this week. They are being spotlighted for lazy, lackadaisical punt coverage that was among the worst thus far in the NFL in 2014.
Down 10-0 to the Green Bay Packers with 3:33 remaining in the first quarter, the Philadelphia Eagles took possession on their 30-yard line after a Mason Crosby kickoff. Philadelphia’s high-powered offense proceeded to lose five yards over the next three plays, requiring the use of their punt team. On came the Eagles punter, Donnie Jones (#8). Jones has not had a strong year for the Eagles, netting an average of only 36.7 yards per kick on a gross of 43.6 yards per kick. Those numbers rank 29th and 30th in the NFL. While raw punting stats are not always the best measure of a punter’s skill due to varying field position of punts, rankings that poor can indicate systemic issues.
The Eagles lined up to punt from their 25-yard line:
The Packers show eight men along the line of scrimmage with Davante Adams (#17) and Casey Hayward (#29) milling about near the line of scrimmage. They will drop away from the line shortly after the snap. The other six Packers are set to pressure the Eagles line. However, rather than employing a straight rush on the Eagles blockers, the Packers stunt on both sides of the line. Sean Richardson (#28) and Jamari Lattimore (#57) make quick moves outside towards the Eagle tackles while Brad Jones (#59) and Justin Perillo (#80) loop inside to take on the guards:
As the stunts unfold, the Eagles have done a good job of picking up most of the rushers. However, circled in yellow, Lattimore has breached the line and appears to have a seam towards the punter. Despite this gap, the Eagles battery executes an incredibly clean operation, with Jones getting the kick off in only 1.85 seconds. This prevents Lattimore from putting real pressure on Jones even though he was able to slip his block.
As the ball travels downfield, the coverage team begins to pursue the returner, Micah Hyde (#33):
Circled in red, Josh Huff (#11) has beaten his man to the inside and is screaming towards Hyde. He has positioned himself strongly, a yard ahead of the Packer pursuer, and makes a beeline towards the center of the field, capitalizing on his advantage.
Behind Huff, the rest of the Eagles make their way downfield as they disengage from their initial blocks. With the ball still hanging in the air, Huff and the rest of the Eagles continue to close in on Hyde:
At the bottom of the Packers logo, Huff is now two yards ahead of his man and is rapidly closing on Hyde, circled in yellow. Moving towards the center of the field puts Huff in position to be heads-up with Hyde rather than approaching him from the side. This is exactly what a punt gunner should do. It forces a returner to make a lateral move in order to beat the gunner instead of heading straight up the field, giving teammates time to arrive.
On the far left of the frame, the other Eagles gunner is also in front of his man. However, he is taking an incredibly wide angle and, although he is further downfield than Huff, this only serves to create space between him and Hyde.
Far behind both players something unusual is happening. Circled in red, Bryan Braman (#56) appears to be adjusting his helmet. While there is nothing on video that shows any blow to the head earlier in the play, Braman clearly has an issue with his helmet that he feels must be addressed at this point. This is not quite as bad as stopping to tie his shoe, but it is not what the special teams coach desires from his players.
Hyde fields the punt from Jones at his 25-yard line after a solid 4.7 seconds of hang-time:
Braman, circled in red, is still adjusting his helmet after covering nearly fifteen yards since the previous still. It is unclear exactly what is wrong with his helmet, but it is not something that Braman is able to fix quickly. Those issues are typically best left to the equipment manager after the play is over.
Huff, indicated by the downward red arrow, has completely beaten his man and is directly in front of Hyde with a two-yard gap between them. This is right where he wants to be. However, the other gunner has been unable to close the angle quickly enough and, though now level with Hyde, is nearly five yards outside his radius. This puts him in a poor position to influence the play, as Hyde has the ability to quickly move past him. Hyde has one option ‒ bounce left and avoid being tackled:
After making a tremendous effort to get down the field and get in position to make a tackle, Huff gives up on the play. He seems to reach out in slow motion, allowing Hyde to sidestep him. Huff’s lack of effort at this critical juncture makes no sense, and allows Hyde to get quickly past him. It is inexcusable, and directly leads to what happens later in the play.
Ahead of Hyde, indicated in yellow, a number of Packers set themselves to block nearby Eagles and the beginnings of a lane start to form. Circled in red, Braman is still working on his helmet, nearly 25 yards from where he started. The running lane for Hyde is directly to Braman’s right, where he is supposed to be positioned.
Hyde accelerates upfield as the Packers create a clear running lane:
Indicated in blue, there are now lines of Packers to Hyde’s left and right, creating a path clean of the Eagles. Hyde sees it and plants off his right leg, quickly changing direction. There is only one free Eagle in front of him. Indicated with the red arrow, James Casey (#85) is running unblocked ten yards ahead of Hyde. His momentum is carrying him to the left of the frame, but he tries to cut back and make a play.
On the right side of the screen, circled in red, Braman has finally given up on fixing his helmet and pinches down into the coverage gap he finally noticed. Unfortunately, this now puts him in what drivers will recognize as “T-bone position”. He is perpendicular to the direction the play is flowing with a blocker in position right next to him.
The result is unsurprising:
Earholed. Circled in red, Braman is now flying through the air backwards after being decleated by a block. Although taking off at the 35-yard line, he will finally roll to a stop near the 28-yard line.
This is not a play from NFL Blitz. This is a real NFL game in which Braman was obliterated due to his inability to stop fiddling with his helmet, look up, and fill his lane properly. His inattentiveness put him in a vulnerable position and was punished for it.
Somewhat ironically, it seems he would have been better off not having a helmet at all, given his history and all:
Leaving Braman aside and returning (that’s special teams humor, by the way) to the game at hand, on the other side of the field, indicated by the red X, Casey has fallen on the frigid grass of Lambeau Field. Despite his best efforts to halt his momentum, the hard ground below him was too unforgiving, and he ends up looking like a teenager on a Slip-N-Slide. Falling without being touched is a massive problem for any defensive player. Players who are taken out by good blocks are understandable for coaches. Players who fall with no contact create opportunities for the opposing team.
Hyde is now nearing full speed and hits the hole quickly:
We’ve seen this story before. Despite a tremendous effort from Jones, Hyde burns the Eagles punter quickly, and makes his way to the end zone:
Fly, Packers, Fly.
Back to flight school for the Eagles.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
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