Punters have one of the weirder jobs in professional sports: While in possession of the ball on offense, they voluntarily give it to the other team in order to avoid potentially negative consequences. In no other sport does a team willfully give up possession of the ball / puck / quaffle when holding it. While punters receive much of the focus, the basic spread punt formation utilized by every NFL team also features seven willing blockers and a personal protector tasked with preventing the return team from blocking a punt. Each of these players has a critical role in making sure a punt gets off properly. Chuck Zodda examines one of the key mistakes blockers can make in punt protection.
While the college game features different rules from the NFL that allow for a number of different punt formations, including the shield punt, the pro game’s bylaws largely restrict the ability for coaches to get creative with punt formations. The basic spread punt employed in the NFL is relatively straightforward:
In the center of the formation, there is a standard five-man line – though rather than being made up of offensive linemen, it is typically comprised of linebackers and tight ends. These players are large enough to provide protection, but also strong in coverage to track down opposing returners once the ball is away. The wing / slot players are usually similar types of players as well, though a number of teams use running backs and safeties here to get additional speed on the field for coverage. On the outside, we have two punt gunners, often wide receivers or cornerbacks, used as the tip of the spear and the first men down in coverage. Lastly, we have the personal protector, traditionally four or five yards behind the line of scrimmage, who sets the protection and also provides additional blocking. Oh, and there is a punter back there, too, usually either 14 or 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
There are two commandments of punt protection for linemen and wings: Block inside threats first, and stay between the punter and your man. To accomplish this, blockers are traditionally taught to employ a kick-slide, which allows them to gain depth and keep an opposing rusher in front of them. The goal is then to punch through the chest of the opposing rusher with both hands, locking him up for a moment, before releasing and getting downfield in coverage. While specific protection schemes can vary from team to team in terms of assignments, the general principles remain the same.
With 6:23 remaining in the first quarter, the Giants line up to punt from their 20-yard line. The ball is slightly inside the right hash, with punter Brad Wing further inside, suggesting an attempt to punt to the right side of the field. Darkwa is assigned to block Bruce Carter (#54), the outside rusher for the Jets, with all other rushers properly accounted for.
At the snap, Darkwa takes one kick-slide and is in good position:
Carter widens slightly at the start of his rush, but Darkwa opens his shoulders slightly to maintain good positioning through his initial kick-slide. He has gained some depth into the backfield, and is properly set to square up to Carter and provide strong blocking.
At this point, Darkwa completely forgets everything he learned about punt protection:
Rather than continuing into a second kick-slide, Darkwa instead plants his feet and attempts to cut-block Carter. The word “attempts” is key here, as he misses both laterally and vertically, effectively falling on his face while Carter simply runs around him to the outside. It is now time for a math break.
Remember that punters typically have their heels 14 or 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage at the outset of a punt. But with a two-step approach and the extension of a punter’s leg, the launch point target is often 10 or 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Carter never ran at the NFL Combine during his draft year due to an ACL injury he suffered in the previous November, but 10-yard splits for linebackers are typically between 1.55 and 1.75 seconds. With the average punt get-off at 1.9 to 2.1 seconds, Carter has more than enough time to get his hands on the ball. The result is unsurprising:
Carter gets a clean block, with the Jets taking possession and then promptly fumbling to negate the turnover with one of their own. Nevertheless, this play is a clear example of what not to do in punt protection, and how the failure of just one player on an eleven-man unit can wreak havoc on what should have been a successful punt.
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