It has been a busy season for special teams. There have been blocked punts, punters scrambling to complete passes – even plays that defy all explanation. Today, Chuck Zodda breaks down a textbook fake punt and how it helped lead the Detroit Lions to victory over the Chicago Bears.
When you’re 0-5 and down by four points to an arch-rival with five minutes left in the fourth quarter at home, it is easy to see how play-calling can mimic a Seinfeld episode. Joe Marciano is in his first year as Detroit’s special teams coordinator, having previously held that position with the Houston Texans from 2002-2013 and acted as a consultant for the Minnesota Vikings last season. So forgive him if all his mind was telling him to do was the opposite of what the Lions had done to this point in the season.
Punter Sam Martin (#6) does not stand out among NFL punters with his 46.0-yard gross average ranking, 17th in the league, and his 40.1-yard net average, ranking 16th. But turning to Martin was the safe play here, as Detroit had time to stop the Bears and gain one more possession.
However, Marciano and the Lions coaches changed things up.
The Bears line up with eight men near the line of scrimmage (red circles), though three are slightly off the line. This is a balanced look, suggesting a standard return without any additional pressure or a move to drop into “punt safe” to look for a fake. The key to this play is the alignment of Cameron Meredith, (#81), the left end near the center of the field. He is nearly heads-up with tight end Tim Wright (#83). Had Meredith lined up further outside, Detroit would have likely called off the fake as it would not have been a clean look in this direction. Detroit instead keeps the play on, leaving the right end unblocked as he is not a threat on a sweep to the left.
But there is another interesting wrinkle to this formation: Looking along the line of the Detroit punt unit, Wright is the only offensive player in the group. The rest of the players are linebackers and defensive ends, meaning that Wright’s insertion into this group from the beginning makes him a great choice to run behind as he has run-blocking experience from his time at tight end.
An important note here is that Abdul-Quddus is not the starting personal protector; starter Zach Zenner left the game in the first half with a chest injury. Unlike the Indianapolis Colts, who chose to run a trick play with an unprepared substitute, Abdul-Quddus is ready for the fake. He takes the direct snap and bolts to the left of the line.
However, Sherrod Martin (#36), initially deployed on the interior of the defensive formation for the Bears, nearly catches him as he takes a direct line to Abdul-Quddus. His angle is slightly steep, and he just misses Abdul-Quddus in the backfield.
But Martin was not the only player who had a chance at Abdul-Quddus. The Lions were smart with their play design, sending their left gunner on an outside release to turn the head of his blocker away from the direction of the run. But his blocker baseball turns to the inside instead, looking right at the fake as it comes towards him:
Fortunately for Detroit, he turns too quickly to notice what was happening, but he was in perfect position to attack the play – if he had spotted it.
Ahead of him, his gunner has now become a blocker (yellow box), fending off the Bears defender with the best chance of stopping him. As Abdul-Quddus kicks it into high gear, the Chicago returner enters the screen:
Marc Mariani (#80) flies up from his position deep downfield, taking a perfect angle to force Abdul-Quddus to the sideline. He eventually tackles him after a 32-yard gain, putting the Lions in position to hit a crucial field goal, as they would eventually tie the game and win in overtime.
While the Bears had several opportunities to stop this play, it was nevertheless strong execution from Detroit’s special teams, who blocked effectively along the line and were able to give Abdul-Quddus just enough room to be successful. The ability of the backup personal protector to step in and not miss a beat speaks to the quality of coaching on the Lions, and is a major step in the right direction as they attempt to right their season.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.