Tavon Austin returned a punt for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks. The reason? Poor use of coverage lanes by Seattle, abandoning everything that is the basis of punt coverage in the NFL. Chuck Zodda breaks down how the Seahawks flunk punt coverage 101.
The St. Louis Rams had two punt returns for touchdowns in 2014 – most notably Stedman Bailey‘s score on a brilliant fake punt return. In Week 1, the Rams took advantage of shockingly bad coverage by the Seattle Seahawks to notch their first punt return touchdown of 2015.
Seattle sets up in spread punt formation, with eight men in the blocking unit. The Rams show seven men near the line of scrimmage, leaving personal protector DeShawn Shead (#35) as the final blocker in the formation.
Most punt returns are usually chaotic after the kick, with many bodies in a tight space looking to execute wildly different assignments. Here, one area of concern is on the right of the frame, where the gunner Ricardo Lockette (#83) has trouble getting off his block. He is actually in line with the rest of the coverage unit instead of leading them downfield.
To his left, a number of Seattle defenders chasing the kick are at or around the hash marks. Spread punt alignments typically bunch a large number of players between the hashes. This is not particularly concerning at this point, as punt coverage units begin in close proximity and are taught to spread out as they move downfield:
However, the issue for the Seahawks is that they remain bunched up, not filling their coverage lane assignments properly:
Circled in blue are eight Seattle defenders to the inside of the right hash. The major problem is that Rams returner Tavon Austin (#11, red arrow) is to the outside of that same hashmark.
To the right of the screen, circled in red, is a massive expanse of open field with two St. Louis blockers in it and nary a Seahawk in sight. This is what special teams coordinators call “the jackpot”, and it pretty much never happens. The lack of coverage by the Seahawks is not simply because of the linemen not getting downfield. In the bottom right corner, Lockette and another Seattle defender have tripped over each other at the Seahawks 30-yard line.
Austin fields the punt and takes off to his left. Behind him, the same eight Seattle defenders pursue him (circled in blue), with no chance of catching the speedster. There is no sign of Lockette and his dance partner, as the those two Seahawks are still on the ground near their own 30-yard line.
The last man in position to potentially make a tackle is Ryan, the Seahawks punter. To be fair, Ryan is arguably the third-scariest punter in the league, behind master-tackler Pat McAfee and former New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford, who is arguably the strongest punter of all-time. However, Ryan is quickly chipped out of the way (yellow arrow), leaving a clear path for Austin into the end zone:
Austin scampers into the end zone for the touchdown, in what would be a critical score in the Rams 34-31 overtime victory against Seattle. While Austin’s speed played a role in this touchdown, this was a clear failure in coverage on the part of the Seahawks, who left a gaping hole that most returners would take capitalize on. Seattle’s coverage unit gave up 11.5 yards per return in 2014, the third-highest total in the league, so this continues to be a lingering weakness for the team to start 2015.
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Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, the humanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.