The St. Louis Rams pulled off one of the most audacious plays of any NFL season earlier this year with a fake punt return against the Seattle Seahawks. This time, the play call proved more conventional, but the punt return unit again delivered in impressive and exciting fashion.
John Fassel could have called it a year in late October. The St. Louis Rams’ special teams coach had pulled off one of the most dazzling plays in recent memory, fooling the entire Seahawks punt team, as well as camera operators, fans, and reporters. He could have mailed it in for the rest of 2014 and said, “Thanks for the accolades, I’ll see you next year.”
But Fassel is not one to rest on his laurels. Rather than simply phoning it in, he continued to develop his game plan. On Sunday in Washington, a Tavon Austin punt return went for a touchdown, albeit in a much more traditional manner than earlier this season.
Trailing 17-0 with 2:00 remaining in the third quarter, Washington sent out their punt team:
Washington sets up in punt spread formation, with seven linemen and a personal protector in front of Tress Way (#5). Out of view in the above still are two gunners, one on each side of the formation near the sideline. The Rams counter with seven men near the line of scrimmage, though only five are in aggressive stances at the line. These Rams will be responsible for pressuring the Washington linemen, while Chase Reynolds (#34) and Cody Davis (#38) will drop at the snap to block.
Immediately after the snap, Reynolds and Davis work their way downfield:
The five other Rams engage the Washington linemen. However, instead of attempting to block the punt, they are employing a technique known as “hold-up”. The primary goal is to keep the opposing lineman in place for as long as possible to prevent them from getting downfield to tackle the returner. It places an emphasis on legally grabbing an offensive lineman inside the numbers and maintaining that block for an extended duration.
This indicates the Rams are more interested in setting up a strong return than bringing pressure on Way. As shown by the red arc, Way has nearly ten yards between himself and his linemen as he prepares to kick.
Way gets the punt off cleanly, though it does begin to hook:
Washington pursues downfield, heading down the left side of the frame as they hunt returner Tavon Austin, who is tracking the ball’s flight. At the same time, the Rams begin to set up their return. Trey Watts (#42) and Will Herring (#54) work back towards the right side of the screen, indicated by the yellow arrows. They allow the Washington defenders a free release to the left side of the field.
As the play continues, the Rams’ set-up for their return becomes obvious:
Austin catches the ball on his 22-yard line. Washington still has a number of players running free down the left side of the field. They likely have visions of explosive tackles knocking off Austin’s helmet and are already planning celebratory dances in their heads. Unfortunately, the Rams have bamboozled them.
Indicated in yellow, a number of Rams station themselves to the right of Washington defenders, and their lopsided alignment is no accident. This is a wall punt return, which a number of teams have employed this year. Reynolds and Davis did not head to the right side of the field because there was a tea party in the soft grass. They did it so they could stick a foot in the ground and cut back to the left, helping to form a bulwark of strong blocks for Austin, who will bring the ball back to the right (indicated in blue). Unfortunately for Washington, the punt to the left side of the field only gives Austin more room to work with and more space for St. Louis to set up blocks, so they have put themselves at a significant disadvantage.
This is when things go from bad to humiliating for Washington. Circled in red at far left is one of their gunners. Not only is he nowhere near Austin, but he has also been blocked nearly eight yards out of bounds and, after finally getting on his feet, is just making his way back to the field. While nothing is impossible, the words “unlikely to make an impact on the play” come to mind for this gunner. He’s no Matthew Slater.
Austin cuts to his right, lining up a number of blocks:
Immediately after his first move, five defenders are already out of the play. They have no chance at catching Austin. There are still a number Washington players positioned to catch him, but rather than attempt to head into the teeth of the defense, Austin wisely chooses to continue his route to the right sideline.
Now at the right hash (below, where the blue arrow begins), Austin has avoided much of the traffic cluttering the middle of the field. But he is also about to get a tremendous block from Maurice Alexander (#31, circled in yellow). Alexander, who had fallen earlier in the play, is now back on his feet as he lines up to block an incoming Washington defender:
Alexander not only takes out one pursuer, but knocks him into three other defenders (below, circled in red), leaving over a third of the Washington coverage unit staggered as they fall behind the play:
Austin now has the outside edge as he turns upfield at the right numbers. To his left, one Washington defender still has a chance to make a play. Austin continues to drift to his right (blue arrow), delaying his final maneuver as his convoy blocks in front of him (indicated in yellow). Finally, he makes his move:
After leading the Washington defender to the right. Austin makes a quick cutback to the inside and splits the last two defenders. His quickness and acceleration make this move look easy, as he threads a narrow gap to burst into open space. From there, it is a quick jaunt to the end zone as he takes the ball in to put the Rams up 24-0.
Austin’s touchdown provided the final nail in the coffin of a Washington team that has consistently disappointed in 2014. On the other hand, the Rams continue to show improvement heading into 2015, backed up by a punt return unit ranking among the league’s strongest.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.