For every great return, there are many great blocks. Eleven players working together in orchestrated chaos, punt return blockers are only recognized when they get penalized for blocking in the back. Not on Chuck Zodda‘s watch. Here is how one extraordinary individual effort earned Kansas City Chiefs Josh Martin the coveted title of Special Teams Superstar.
Josh Martin went undrafted out of Columbia University in 2013. This shouldn’t be surprising to most followers of the sport; Columbia is not a known football powerhouse, even at the FCS level. However, the Kansas City Chiefs thought enough of Martin to sign him as an undrafted free agent shortly after the 2013 NFL Draft. A linebacker by trade, Martin has bounced between the practice squad, active roster, and waiver wire for much of his two years in the NFL. He left an indelible imprint on last weekend’s game against the Raiders, though, putting forth a tremendous effort on a punt return that helped spring De’Anthony Thomas for a touchdown.
With 2:38 remaining in the first quarter, the Raiders sent out their punt unit after an eight-yard “drive.” Oakland deployed a standard punt spread formation:
Martin (#95) lines up in a 5-technique outside of Raiders left guard Jamize Olawale (#49). With the Chiefs only showing six men near the line of scrimmage, it is clear they are prioritizing a strong return over blocking the punt. Oakland has eight men in protection, and should handle the pressure easily.
At the snap, Martin gets off the line and attacks Olawale:
Indicated in red, Martin fires into Olawale’s body, grabbing and holding him in place. This illustrates a “hold up” technique, where Martin does not attempt to bring pressure on the punter, but instead secures his opponent to prevent him from getting downfield toward the returner. Around Martin, four other Chiefs use a similar technique, though Charcandrick West (#35) begins to drop away from the line of scrimmage to help set up the return.
As the play continues, Martin does a great job of engaging Olawale:
Shortly after the ball gets kicked, Martin and Olawale are still at the 24-yard line. Olawale begins to loop around to the right of the frame, and Martin takes a path straight up the left hash to mirror him (indicated in red). On the right side of the screen a number of Raiders have a free release at this point as they work downfield.
However, this free release is intentional:
Several of Kansas City’s rushers loop up the left side of the field (red arrows), setting up for a return to that side. By working from left to right they will gain leverage on the Raider defenders, walling them away from the return.
Martin (circled in red) now moves down the middle of the field, his head looking towards the right side of the screen as he keeps tabs on Olawale for an eventual block. Like his teammates, Martin stays to the left of Olawale so he can force him away from the eventual return.
The punt finally reaches Thomas (#13) at the Chiefs’ 19-yard line:
Point of fact: There should have been a holding penalty on this play. Circled in blue, Kelcie McCray (#24) is grasping the jersey of Neiko Thorpe (#31). However, this is an incredibly difficult call for a sideline official to make, as it is on the opposite side of the player from the official, and the two players have battled for the entire length of the field. It is not nearly as easy to see as a block in the back, meaning such infractions often go unflagged.
Thomas has a clear lane up the left side of the field (yellow arrow), as a number of Chiefs are set up in perfect position to re-route the Raiders to the right. Circled in red, Martin is aligned with the left hash as Olawale has stayed to his right for the length of the field. Martin has drifted somewhat from his initial orientation as it is now clear that Thomas is going to make his move up the left.
As Thomas clears the first Raider, Martin flies into action again:
Circled in red, Martin has stuck his foot in the ground at the Chiefs’ 38-yard line and is now searching for a block upfield. The technique he uses here is perfect. Rather than making a rounded turn that would have created distance and taken time, Martin plants off his left leg to open up to the eventual block, much like a basketball player running a pick-and-roll tries to maintain a position facing the ball. He wastes very little motion, resulting in a quick change of direction, even though Martin has already run close to 50 yards on the play.
Meanwhile, Thomas is making his way up the left sideline as a number of other Chiefs engage their blocks. He has a clear route for the next 30 yards.
As Thomas flies down the sideline, Martin runs with him:
Now at the Chiefs’ 43-yard line, Martin has turned and is lining up Marcel Reece (#45) for a block. Thomas is clear of every defender except Reese and punter Marquette King (#7). With Reese representing the only realistic threat to Thomas, this makes Martin an incredibly important person for the remainder of the return.
Martin makes contact with Reese at the Raiders’ 25-yard line:
Martin has now run nearly 100 yards in search of his final block. He gets a strong push on Reese to force him back to the inside of the field. Thomas is even with him at the 25-yard line as he sprints down the sideline. It’s time for Martin to let up and take a nice easy stroll into the end zone behind Thomas, right? Wrong:
Martin still has more in the tank. Circled in red, he finishes the sprint down the field at the same time as Thomas flips into the end zone. After running 125 yards, Martin still has energy to keep moving. That is the kind of effort that special teams coaches demand out of their players, and marks one of the finest individual performances on special teams this season. It is an absolutely tremendous play, one that should keep Martin in the NFL as a core special teamer for a long time if he continues to exhibit that same passion and fire.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.