Seattle Seahawks punter Jon Ryan has appeared frequently in Inside The Pylon’s special teams coverage: a multi-part 2014 scouting report, falling victim to a fake punt return, and out-kicking his coverage. Chuck Zodda reviewed every Ryan punt in 2015, and found a vulnerability other teams could exploit in the postseason.
While the average fan views punting as “See the ball, drop the ball, kick the ball”, NFL teams employ a number of different strategies in order to make things as difficult as possible for returners. Some teams focus on directional punting, some teams prioritize distance over everything else, while other look to generate higher-than-average hang time and a higher proportion of fair catches.
Last season, Jon Ryan and the Seahawks utilized the left numbers as their primary target on punts. 41% of Seattle’s punts landed in that location in 2014, with an additional 21% falling between the left numbers and the left hash. While this makes Ryan somewhat predictable in the punt game, it also allows them to focus on executing one play at a high level, building a tremendous amount of consistency through repetitions. This season, the Seahawks have continued to kick left, while mixing in an open-field strategy that has had mixed results.
The Old 1-2
Ryan utilizes two different punts to target the different areas of the field. Punting, much like golf, attempts to create the same swing plane on every kick, with the angle and placement of the drop being the variable that gives the ball a different flight. Ryan employs two different drops – the flat drop that punters have used for years, as well as a nose-down drop that has gained traction in recent years, partly due to Ryan’s success with it.
The primary goal of a basic flat drop is to strike the ball so that it spirals and carries downfield because of the low air resistance, much like a pass. This entails hitting the ball slightly off-center to generate spin, while typically turning the nose slightly to the punter’s plant leg in order to create a slightly wider contact point. While there are variations that different punters can employ in different situations, this tactic can to maximize both hang time and distance.
Nose-down punting has two primary differences from the flat drop. Rather than spiraling, a nose-down punt tumbles end-over-end, giving it a better chance of stopping after bouncing in short-yardage punting situations. Also, the punter has finer distance control because of a better contact point. However, increased air resistance saps distance, making this an undesirable kick when yardage is needed.
What’s Your Number?
Ryan has placed 44% of his punts on the left numbers this year, with another 21% (again) falling between the left numbers and left hash. Two thirds of Seattle’s punts fall in a horizontal area that makes up just 20% of the field. The Seahawks have used this strategy regardless of which hash they are kicking from – Ryan has the ability to land the ball in this spot from either side.
When using his nose-down punt, Ryan averages 41.4 yards per punt along with 4.37 seconds of hang time, giving the Seahawks ample time to get downfield in coverage. The Seattle coverage unit excels when covering punts in this direction, with returners picking up just 4.06 yards per return on kicks to the left. The combination of Ryan’s outstanding accuracy, strong hang time, and well-executed coverage means that returners are often left with limited options, and yardage.
Facing the San Francisco 49ers at home, the Seahawks are forced to punt from their 29-yard line:
In their typical spread punt formation, Ryan (#9) has his heels 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The snap is clean, and Ryan preps for a nose-down kick.
Pressure has been a constant issue for Seattle this year, and could be their undoing in the playoffs. Ryan has had one kick partially blocked (Week 3), and several others that have come close to danger because of pressure from this side.
Fanning out to the left (green arrows), they work to close down gaps as they track the returner, Bruce Ellington (#10). Seattle’s left gunner is ahead of the play, attempting to get into contain position.
Ellington catches the ball just inside the numbers at his 29-yard line after a a 43-yard flight and 4.25 seconds of hang time, making this punt a great example of Ryan’s typical nose-down strike. The gunner crosses the face of Ellington as he goes for the tackle. While he misses on his initial attempt, he recovers quickly, and is able to leverage Ellington back to the sideline:
Ellington tries to find running room as the coverage team bears down on him. However, the Seahawks quickly get into position, closing out potential return lanes:
This has been an outstanding strategy for the last two years for Seattle, and this play exemplifies everything they do well. The coverage team knows their landmarks and where to get to on the field, and Ryan strikes the ball so consistently that this operation is a machine for the Seahawks after so much practice.
Not So Middling Returns
However, Ryan has utilized another kick throughout the 2015 season. While the left-numbers-nose-down punt will always be his bread and butter, Ryan has also tried out a traditional flat drop that splits the middle of the field when the Seahawks are pinned deep in their own territory. While the average line of scrimmage for his left-numbers punt is the Seattle 38-yard line, the average field position for his longer punt down the middle is the Seattle 28-yard line.
This kick is more powerful than the nose-down punt, averaging 53.2 yards in the air. However, this kick only picks up 0.1 seconds of hang time, clocking in at 4.47 seconds for the season. Additional distance, coupled with an insignificant increase in hang time, makes this punt much easier to return. Facing this kick, opponents have racked up 12.41 yards per return – over eight yards more than the left-numbers strategy.
However, a key culprit is a coverage unit that continues to drift left, despite the ball consistently landing in the middle of the field.
Punting against the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this year, Seattle deploys spread punt formation from their 22-yard line:
Ryan awaits the ball 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage, takes the snap and booms the ball using his middle-distance flat-drop punting technique:
Near the Cincinnati 40-yard line, the left punt gunner (green arrow) bends his route in as he tracks the returner, Adam Jones (#24). However, with just 12 yards to Jones and still well outside the left hash, the angle is too steep for the gunner to effectively close distance on Jones while retaining body control.
Behind him, the rest of the Seahawks charge downfield as well. Unfortunately for Seattle, much of their punt unit has already begun to drift to the left side of the field (red box), away from the right hash from where they had punted. While the exact reason why the Seahawks have done this is unclear, it is a critical error that is repeated on multiple punts from deep inside their own territory where Ryan employs this middle punt strategy.
The two possible explanations are that these punts are supposed to travel more to the left, or that the punt unit’s spatial memory takes them in that direction since they go left more than two-thirds of the time on punt coverage. The latter is the most likely, as Ryan reliably hits this kick in the middle of the field.
Circled in green, he is blocked outside of Jones, who takes a hop to his left and seeks running room. Jones has plenty of green to the right of the frame, with only one Seattle defender (Luke Willson, #82) outside the right hash. Willson also happens to be three yards ahead of the original line of scrimmage, and nowhere near being involved in the play.
A great seal block on the Seahawk defender lets him sprint for the numbers. Behind him, four Seattle defenders are walled outside the opposite hash, having never been involved in the play. Two Seahawks (green arrows) pursue Jones, but their pursuit angles are too steep to control their momentum. Back at the Seattle 30-yard line, Willson has made it slightly further downfield, but cannot get off his block, nearly six seconds after the play started.
The returner displays outstanding spatial awareness here, using this block perfectly to find more open space in front of him. Willson (blue box) has finally moved more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage and he looks to get involved in the play, but Ryan (green arrow) appears to have the cleanest path to Jones.
While Willson does contain the play to the inside, he is largely ineffective in coverage. Jones is finally running out of real estate as Ryan closes in and eventually makes the tackle after a 35-yard return.
In situations beyond the Seattle 35-yard line, teams should be ready for the left-numbers kick that is likely to have minimal returns because of their outstanding coverage and Ryan’s hang time. This has been a machine-like operation for the last two years, and there is no reason to believe things will change over the next several weeks.
However, Ryan’s long-distance punts lack sufficient hang time for the distance, and coupled with Seattle’s drift to the left on punt coverage, present opportunities for opposing return units to make big plays. On punts from deep in Seahawks territory, opposing coordinators would be wise to use wall returns to the right of the Seattle formation, and give their returners a clear lane up the sideline.
This unfortunately is not a one-time event for the Seahawks, who demonstrated this lack of positioning multiple times on big returns off this kick. While their left-numbers game is phenomenal, their long-distance middle punt is a potential Achilles heel for them going forward in the playoffs.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.
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.