Only 19 times this season has there been a punt block. So for it to happen twice in one game…Chuck Zodda had to throw a block party to celebrate. As always, special teams execution is essential and lots of fun to break down.
Off the field, the Minnesota Vikings have remained in the headlines only because of the Adrian Peterson controversy.On the field, 2014 has been a bland and forgettable campaign for the NFC North cellar-dwellers. At 5-7 and without their best player for much of the year, the team has struggled to remain competitive yet is still on the outskirts of the NFL playoff picture. Additionally, their five wins take them out of contention for a high draft pick, leaving the Vikings in the unenviable position of playing out the string with nothing at stake.
However, just because things haven’t gone well doesn’t mean you can’t throw a party every once in a while. The Vikings did just that on Sunday, riding to a 31-13 home win over the Carolina Panthers with some solid execution on special teams.
With 7:09 remaining in the first quarter, the Panthers sent on their punt unit after a short drive. From their own 43-yard line, Carolina looked to pin the Vikings deep in their territory:
The Vikings show eight men near the line of scrimmage (above, circled in yellow). This suggests they will pressure the punter rather than set up for a return. Brad Nortman (#8) has his heels 13 yard behind the line of scrimmage as he awaits the hike from J.J. Jansen (#44).
Just before the snap, the Vikings shift their alignment:
Indicated by the two yellow arrows, Adam Thielen (#19) and Andrew Sendejo (#34) slide towards the right hash, where the ball is placed. Thielen takes up a position on the left shoulder of Jansen, while Sendejo perches over his right shoulder. Recent rule changes prevent defenders from lining up directly over the long snapper, so this is as aggressive a stance as a defense can take pre-snap. The Vikings now have all eight men placed on the line of scrimmage, removing any doubt that they’re planning an assault.
However, Carolina has eight men in their standard “punt spread” formation:
The most important man aside from the battery in any professional punt formation is the personal protector, stationed three yards behind the line of scrimmage. Thomas DeCoud (#21) occupies this role for the Panthers. His primary responsibilities are to identify which way Jansen should go in protection, as well as calling out the cadence and blocking once the ball is snapped. Oh, and making sure he counts ten other teammates on the field.
As indicated in the above still, the proper call would be to send Jansen to the left, allowing the four Vikings on that side to be picked up by Carolina linemen. DeCoud would then fill the gap to the left of Jansen, while the three linemen on the right side would pick up the remaining three Vikings. There are enough men in protection to block every rusher.
This is not what happens:
Just after the ball is snapped, Minnesota brings heavy pressure. All eight men burst off the line of scrimmage towards Nortman. However, Minnesota throws a slight wrinkle into their interior rush. Sendejo, who had been lined up on the left shoulder of Jansen, stunts to the outside. At the same time, the Minnesota rusher originally opposite Jason Williams (#54) twists underneath and runs directly at Jansen.
Thielen rockets straight through the A-gap, firing past Jansen’s left shoulder. He comes off the line heading straight for Nortman, with very little horizontal movement.
As the play develops, these actions have devastating consequences for the Panthers:
Notice the Minnesota defender (circled in yellow) who twisted under Sendejo. He now has the attention of both Jansen and Williams, pulling the latter out of position. This opens up a path for Sendejo to the punter. Of greater concern, Jansen is also occupied by this rusher instead of sliding to his left to pick up Thielen. At the same time, DeCoud has filled in behind Jansen and Williams, and appears to be out of position to pick up Sendejo if he comes through the right A-gap.
A cavernous space opens for Thielen on the left side as Jansen neglects his responsibilities. Both jersey digits are visible through the gap in the line as he heads upfield towards Nortman.
Shortly after, a punters’ worst nightmare occurs:
Indicated by the yellow arrow, Thielen has advanced past the Carolina front. He is unblocked. And he is seven yards from a helpless punter with no recourse. Oh, the humanity.
On the other side of the line, DeCoud finally remembers his responsibility for the right A-gap: Too little, too late. Holding Sendejo (now barreling through the hole) becomes his only option, and a feeble one at that. Circled in red, DeCloud’s right arm wraps around Sendejo’s torso as the rusher passes him.
The hold prevents Sendejo from reaching Nortman, but DeCoud can do nothing about Thielen:
Circled in red, Thielen blocks the punt with ease. This was not a tipped punt or one that he got by reaching as far as he could. Thielen makes contact with the ball somewhere between his wrists and his stomach. It is an easy block for him.
Obscured slightly by the goalpost, DeCoud tackles Sendejo. Despite a clear infraction by the Panthers, the officials all no penalty on this play:
Thielen not only blocks the punt, after which the ball lands nearly underneath him. Circled in yellow, he corrals it and makes a beeline for the goal line, taking the block in for a well-deserved touchdown.
This play provides a clear example of miscommunication along the line leading to an easy block for the Vikings. Punt blocks are generally rare, with only 12 in 2013, though there have been 19 to this point in 2014. But the Vikings weren’t done. Their block party was just getting started.