Football is littered with specialized terminology. From option route to spin move, commentators rarely get to explain everything you need to know before the next play. Inside The Pylon’s glossary was developed to give fans a deeper understanding of the game through clear explanations, as well as image and video examples. Please contact us with any terms or phrases you’d like to know more about.
A punt is a play utilized by a team on fourth down in a situation where it is unlikely the offense will pick up the yardage required to produce a new set of downs; the goal is generally to “spend” the down to gain superior field position on the opponent’s next possession. The NFL rulebook defines a punt as “a kick made by a player who drops the ball and kicks it before it strikes the ground.” Punts must be taken from behind the line of scrimmage, and may not be touched by the kicking team unless a player on the opposite team touches the ball first. In the event a player on the returning team does not touch the ball, the punt is ruled down at the spot the ball stops or it is recovered by the kicking team. A punt traveling out of bounds will be marked at the spot in which it crosses the out of bounds line. A punt traveling into the opposing end zone will result in a touchback and the ball being placed on the opposing 20-yard line.
Punting is a defensive strategy in which a team attempts to pin its opponent as far back on the field as legal after an unsuccessful drive. At this point, punts are used almost exclusively on fourth down in both the NFL and college football, though a quick kick is possible on earlier downs.
There are three keys to a successful punt, with hang time being the first of them. NFL punters look to produce hang times of 4.5 to 5.0 seconds, though a number of punters can see greater numbers on strong punts. College punters, who are typically not as developed, will target 4.0 to 4.5 seconds of hang.
The second core concept to punting is distance control. While maximum distance is important on a punt from a team’s own territory, as the line of scrimmage approaches midfield, preventing a touchback becomes more important to prevent giving up field position yards. Because of this, many teams target the opposing 10-yard line when kicking from between the 40-yard lines, as shown by the Cincinnati Bengals:
Directional kicking is the third key to punting, as teams will often look to utilize the sideline as a kind of surrogate defender in order to restrict movement of the opposing returner. Below, Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch shows the location of an optimal directional kick:
These three factors work in tandem to prevent a strong return from the opposing team. Hang time gives the coverage unit time to move downfield, and additional distance helps to reduce the impact of a possible return on the net yardage of the punt. It is important to note that in an ideal punt, hang time will increase with distance, as the coverage unit needs more time to get further downfield. Lastly, directional punting can be used to pin a dangerous returner to the sideline, utilizing the boundary as an additional defender.