2015 Playoffs: Cardinals at Panthers Special Teams Preview

The Cardinals at Panthers special teams preview looks at the kickoff and punt coverage units, the return teams, plus the kickers and punters for both teams.

The Arizona Cardinals enter the playoffs at 11-5, with most discussion centered on whether they are a capable playoff team without starting quarterback Carson Palmer or backup Drew Stanton. A club with a shaky quarterback needs to be strong in other areas. What should concern the Cardinals are their lackluster special teams, with most units failing to produce this year and only a few showing as potential strengths.

The Panthers snuck into the postseason at 7-8-1, hoping to prove they can still beat the Cardinals despite their porous record. Unfortunately, the Panthers special teams rate among the worst in the league in a number of facets, providing no discernible value. It is actually somewhat miraculous that the Panthers managed to win even seven games with units as bad as theirs.

When Arizona Punts

The Cardinals own one of the most maddening punt units in the league, a walking contradiction more likely to hurt than help.

Drew Butler handles the punting duties for the Cardinals, but without much gusto. His 42.1-yard gross average rates well below the 2014 league average of 45.2 yards per kick. But what Butler lacks in leg strength he makes up for in ball control, placing 43% of his kicks inside the 20-yard line compared to the 34.6% average, and allowing only 6.3% of his kicks to go for touchbacks (NFL punters average 7.4%). Butler’s snap-to-kick times are consistently around 1.9 seconds, which is below the 2.0 figure NFL teams typically target.

However, the rest of the unit does little to help with actually covering punts. The Cardinals suffered blocks on 2.5% of their attempts this season, third-worst among playoff teams and also significantly above the 1% average for the rest of the NFL. One of those blocks occurred against Seattle when the Cardinals attempted to punt with only 10 men on the field, leaving significant questions as to the focus and preparation of this unit:

snead-reaches-butler-quick

The Cardinals also allow 9.5 yards per return, which ranks sixth among the 12 teams still playing, and also above the 8.9 yards per return accrued league-wide. In short, the Arizona punt coverage unit offers limited upside with the potential for catastrophe.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, the Panthers return unit stands ill-equipped to take advantage of their weakness. Carolina ranks 18th in the NFL this season with 8.0 yards per return, nearly a full yard below the league average. Philly Brown, the Panthers’ strongest punt returner this year, sports a 9.6-yard average and a 79-yard touchdown. Yet aside from that scoring run, he averaged an atrocious 4.9 yards per return.

However, Carolina employs a number of different fronts and returns that could trip up the Cardinals. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers initially showed a high-pressure look with eight men on the line:

CarTwist

Indicated by yellow arrows, two Panthers twist as they bring strong pressure up the middle, but they cannot block the kick.

Later in the game, Carolina showed two different returns:

CarReturn

Circled in yellow, the Panthers keep two men standing off the line of scrimmage and rush only five players. These two players drop away from the line after the snap, allowing them to block for the returner. However, Carolina also disguises who they are dropping and use this to set up the eventual return:

CareLineDrop

Above, Carolina again drops two men away from the line of scrimmage. In this case, Fozzy Whittaker (#43), who starts the play off the line, ends up stunting toward the middle to rush the punter. Instead, Richie Brockel (#47) drops away from his position over the left tackle and retreats toward the right of the frame. He eventually sets up a key block:

CarKickOut

Brockel, now just outside the right numbers (circled in yellow), lines up a Buccaneer for a key kick-out block to spring Brown (#16) for a return up the sideline.

While a significant impact by Carolina’s punt return unit seems unlikely, the Panthers hold advantages over the Arizona punt squad and should exploit any lapses in execution.

When Carolina Punts

If Arizona’s punt team is maddeningly inconsistent, Carolina’s is simply maddening. The Panthers lead the league in nearly every category for which teams don’t want to set the bar. Most punts blocked? Check. Most yards per return allowed? Check. Highest total yards given up? Check. Lowest average net yardage? Check. The Panthers are an absolutely terrible team when it comes to punting the football.

Not all of this is the fault of punter Brad Nortman, who ranks near league-average in every primary statistic. His 44.9-yard gross average falls just below the 45.2-yard NFL figure. He puts 36.1% of his kicks inside the 20-yard line compared to 34.9% for the league. Only 6.9% of his punts result in touchbacks, just under the 7.5% mean. He even forces fair catches at a 27.8% rate, not far off the NFL average of 27.4%. Everything about Nortman screams average. So what’s the problem?

The rest of the Panthers’ punt unit is abysmal. Look no further than their performance against Minnesota earlier this year, where Nortman had two punts blocked and returned to the end zone. To put this in perspective, only 1% of all punt attempts result in a block. Carolina not only gave up two blocks in the same game, but also had those kicks blocked so decisively that both were recovered for touchdowns.

The Cardinals punt return team serves as a significant weapon in the field position game. Arizona is highly adaptive in terms of its return strategy, utilizing a number of different returns tailored to its opponent. During their tilt against Kansas City, the Cardinals utilized primarily up-the-middle returns, characterized by a horizontally-spread look from their blockers that relied on Ted Ginn Jr. to find the appropriate gap in the defense:

CardFlat

However, against other teams, Arizona will dramatically alter its return game to exploit weaknesses. Facing the Rams, the Cardinals employed a number of “left wall” runbacks, setting up a wall on the left side of the returner to provide a blocking route to the sideline:

CardWall

This flexibility paired with Ginn’s speed enables the Cardinals to alter field position against any opponent. Ginn averaged 10.7 yards per return, good for 6th in the league, and 3rd among playoff teams. He should prove a major asset to the Cardinals during the postseason.

Given the weakness of the Carolina punting unit, the Cardinals stand poised to turn this phase of the game into a major advantage.

When Arizona Kicks Off

On Arizona’s below-average unit, Chandler Catanzaro notched touchbacks on 50.7% of his kicks this season, just below the league average of 52.3%. However, the Cardinals also yielded 26.1 yards per return (above the NFL average of 23.8), third-worst among playoff teams. Catanzaro shows no preferred direction for kickoffs, as they tend to scatter within five yards of the hash marks. His hang time ranges from 4.1 to 4.5 seconds, average for an NFL kicker. Overall, Arizona’s unit projects as a net negative relative to the competition the Cardinals will face.

The Panthers average a poor 21.8 yards per return, with a season-best runback of 49 yards. They utilize a number of returners, including Brown and Whittaker, but have had limited success this year. They may see some extra space against the Cardinals coverage unit, but this is not a game-breaking squad by any means.

When Carolina Kicks Off

The coverage problems for Carolina extend beyond its punt unit. The Panthers’ kickoff team allows the second-highest average return in the NFL (32.4 yards) compared to the league mark of 23.8. Fortunately for Carolina, kicker Graham Gano has an absolutely massive leg and generates touchbacks at a ridiculous 77.2% rate, best in the league by 4% and well above NFL’s 52.3% average. Gano will have to be on his game in this one, as the Panthers can’t allow the Cardinals to pick up additional yardage on kickoff returns.

Fortunately for Carolina, Arizona fields the worst return team in the league, averaging only 19 yards per kickoff return. They have no touchdowns on the year and a season-long runback of just 43 yards. They demonstrate no ability to generate any meaningful impact for their team in this phase of the game, and are likely to find themselves with a long field in most situations following kickoffs.

The performance of Ginn, the Cardinals’ sole returner, has been inconsistent in this phase of the game. He has the speed to be an elite returner, but unfortunately fails to hit the hole quickly enough on kickoff returns to get past the first wave of defenders. He fares far better in the punt return game, where his ability to accelerate laterally plays at a higher level than on kickoffs.

Placekicking

What Gano has in leg strength he lacks in accuracy. His 82.9% mark ranks 21st out of 31 qualifying kickers and is still above his career average of 79.1%. Gano has shown improvement in recent years, but he remains too unpredictable to be an asset for the Panthers. His leg strength has not translated into an ability to make kicks from distance this season, knocking home just one of three field goal attempts from 50+ yards after hitting on all six tries from that range in 2013.

In his first season, Catanzaro already rates as an upper-echelon kicker who made 87.9% of his FGA during the regular season. He is perfect on PATs so far but has not been thoroughly tested from long range, making only two of three FGA from 50+ yards. The Clemson product has demonstrated a strong enough leg for those kicks, but it remains to be seen whether he becomes a long-range weapon for the Cardinals.

Summary: Cardinals at Panthers Special Teams Preview

Arizona’s special teams are a major question mark outside of its punt return unit and placekicking. The Cardinals have significant issues with both of their coverage units, and their kickoff return unit is arguably the worst in the league.

Carolina’s coverage units are legitimately terrible, and its return teams are below-average. With their shoddy execution on display, it is not surprising the Panthers ended up with a losing record in the regular season.

This type of special teams matchup should be impossible to see in the playoffs, but unfortunately fans will have to watch it. The weak coverage units may offer the potential for long returns, but only if the weak return teams can take advantage. The overall edge goes to the Cardinals, hardly an honor worthy of engraving on any trophies.

Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.

Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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