Wall returns are relatively common in the NFL, with the punt return team setting up a wall of blockers for its returner in an effort to clear a path down one side of the field. Chuck Zodda looks at how the Atlanta Falcons inside wall return ended with an interesting twist against the San Francisco 49ers.
With 8:31 remaining in the 1st quarter and leading 3-0, the Falcons forced a 49ers punt from the San Francisco 39-yard line. Rookie punter Bradley Pinion (#5) from Clemson heads out with the rest of the 49ers punt unit to kick the ball away:
Pinion lines up 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage, with the protection set in spread punt formation. Atlanta shows eight men near the line of scrimmage (yellow circles), a look that conveys a potential block attempt. Only Ricardo Allen (#37) is not on the line of scrimmage for the Falcons, indicating they may bring pressure.
Six Falcons engage the San Francisco line using hold up technique as Allen takes off towards the left side of the frame. Pinion receives a clean snap and punts the ball away.
As a result of the low hang-time, the right gunner has to lunge at returner Eric Weems (#14), missing him as the ball carrier makes a quick jump cut. The left gunner is not in a position to make a play, but does have position to force Weems back to the inside, instead of allowing him to bounce wide left. At this point, San Francisco has a gaping hole in their coverage unit caused by a vertical stacking of three players just outside the right numbers who did not maintain their coverage lanes. Meanwhile, the three Falcons assigned to block these players are all aligned to their left, creating a perfect wall running up the numbers (blue boxes).
Towards the right hash, the Atlanta blockers on this side are forcing the 49ers to the left of the frame (purple boxes), creating a natural seam for Weems. Only one defender, Eric Reid (#35) is in position to make a stop, but he will be picked off by a great cross block from Phillip Adams (#20, purple dotted line), who comes from his position blocking the right gunner to seal off Reid.
However, San Francisco tight end Kyle Nelson (#86) slides over to the right numbers, forcing Weems to adjust horizontally. While Nelson does not make the tackle here, his leverage moves Weems into a better approach angle for Pinion, who is sitting back as a safety.
Weems goes down at the 50-yard line after a 41-yard return.
Long punt returns typically require a mixture of multiple errors in order for them to occur. Three factors made this return possible. The first was Pinion’s lack of hang-time, which put his gunners in a difficult position. While the left gunner was somewhat walled-off, the right gunner would have had a play on Weems with an extra half-second of hang-time. The second issue was the poor alignment of the San Francisco coverage unit, which became vertically stacked, leaving a massive hole right up the middle.
But the third factor was not anything related to the 49ers, but rather the great execution by the Falcons, who ran this design perfectly, and produced a big return as a result. Only the great tackle by Pinion saved this from being a touchdown as Atlanta set their offense up with outstanding field position.
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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.