The Panthers at Seahawks special teams preview looks at the kickoff and punt coverage units, the return teams, plus the kickers and the punters for both teams.
Connoisseurs of fine special teams skill, prepare to be disappointed. The Carolina Panthers managed to escape from the wreckage of one of the greatest special teams railroad catastrophes in NFL Playoff history ‒ mainly because the Arizona Cardinals played even worse. They now travel to CenturyLink Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks, to face the defending champions in what projects as merely a speed bump for the holders of last year’s Lombardi Trophy. But while Seattle has a clear edge in other phases of the game, their special teams have been largely subpar this season, which could make for another game of bumbles, fumbles, and stumbles in the transitions from offense to defense.
When Carolina Punts
Brad Nortman was quite pedestrian as the Carolina punter this season. He nearly matched the league average in distance (44.9 yards versus 45.2), punts inside the 20 (36.1% versus 34.6%), touchback percentage (6.9% versus 7.4%), and fair catch percentage (27.8% versus 27.3%). He is the Joe Sixpack of NFL punters. Nortman, though, was very strong for most of the game against the Cardinals. He only averaged 37.3 yards per kick, but the Panthers consistently punted from inside or near Arizona territory – he placed three punts inside the 20-yard line, including this beauty that Carolina downed at the 2-yard line:
Nortman did have one punt bounce into the end zone for a touchback, but his biggest error occurred late in the game when receiving a high snap:
The ball reaches Nortman just above his shoulders. At this point, he is already beginning to bring it down as he starts his punting motion. Somehow, Nortman loses his grip in the process:
Nortman typically has steady hands, given his role as the holder for Carolina’s FG/PAT unit, but in this case he looked much more like a competitor in a greased watermelon race. The play resulted in a turnover on downs, which the anemic Cardinal offense could not capitalize on. The rest of Carolina’s punt coverage team rated as the NFL’s worst this season. They gave up the most yards per return and the highest total yards, compiled the lowest average net yardage, and allowed the most blocked punts. Simply put, this is a dreadful unit that has no place in the second round of the playoffs.
Seattle’s return unit will likely give the Panthers all they can handle. The Seahawks have one goal when lining up against a punt – block the kick. They bring pressure in all situations from a variety of angles that will present all kinds of issues for the dismal Carolina protection unit. The Seahawks willingly and consistently pass up the opportunity to generate a significant runback. They rank third in the league in fair catches and have the eighth-lowest yards per return. But they can bring pressure. Against the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle employed a twist into the A gaps on multiple occasions:
With eight men on the line of scrimmage, the Seahawks send everyone, with the two interior rushers twisting to confuse opposing linemen. Although they do not block this kick, they put significant pressure on 49ers punter Andy Lee. Against the Cardinals, Seattle showed a completely different look:
Just prior to the snap, Seattle pulls Richard Sherman (#25) off his role blocking the Arizona gunner on the left (yellow circle). At the snap, DeShawn Shead (#35) takes off to pick up the gunner while Sherman breaks for Cardinals punter Drew Butler:
Sherman gets a finger on the punt before crashing into Butler. While not an outright block, the Seahawks did block an Arizona punt earlier this year on a massive miscommunication by the Cardinal line. With the Panthers vulnerable to the same type of mistakes, this could be a long night for the Carolina punt unit.
When Seattle Punts
Seattle features one of the NFL’s best punting talents in Jon Ryan. While averaging only 44.1 yards per kick, he rated significantly above-average in landing punts inside the 20-yard line (45.9% versus 34.6%) and generating fair catches (36.1% versus 27.3%). The Seahawks battery runs a consistent snap-to-kick time near 1.9 seconds, with Ryan capable of launching punts into near-orbit with close to five seconds of hang time. However, inconsistency plagues Ryan. Despite having the natural ability to challenge Pat McAfee, Johnny Hekker and Sam Martin for All-Pro honors he simply fails to deliver the same game-to-game performance.
In their matchup against the 49ers, Ryan uncorked a ridiculous 59-yard punt with 4.8 seconds of hang time that resulted in only a 9-yard gain. He also crushed a 57-yard rocket that his teammates downed at the San Francisco 4-yard line. But later in the game, punting from his own 8-yard line, he managed only 3.8 seconds of hang time and had to be bailed out by his coverage unit. Ryan at this point also lacks the elite directional skills of other top punters. The coverage unit for Seattle has the same issues as Ryan: They are capable of turning in phenomenal performances, but manage to do so on a frustratingly sparse basis.
On Ryan’s 59-yard punt against San Francisco, their best tendencies were on display:
The Seahawks’ Jermaine Kearse (#15, circled in yellow) lines up as the left gunner. The 49ers double-team him, suggesting a return to this side. What does Kearse do? He shreds the double team:
Taken on by the first blocker, he initially gets ridden out of bounds but maintains momentum downfield. Once clear of him, he accelerates towards the returner:
Kearse now has an open field in front of him, but the second man from the double-team has dialed in a collision course. Kearse simply kicks it into another gear and outruns the block:
Now two yards past the nearest blocker, Kearse angles in on the returner. Despite being blocked in the back, he manages to make the returner move laterally, giving his teammates time to get down the field:
This is the type of play the Seahawks are capable of but, unfortunately, their coverage unit ranks third-worst in the NFL, giving up 11.5 yards per return. Much of this yardage came on a 90-yard touchdown, but those are the types of returns that top units do not give up. There were only 13 punt return touchdowns this season, and the Seahawks cannot be considered anywhere near a top unit if they allow a play with that type of impact.
Fortunately for ‘Hawks fans, the Panthers are an average return team, using a questionable scheme and displaying sloppy execution on a regular basis. They averaged 8.0 yards per return in the regular season, 18th in the NFL, and showed no signs of improvement in the Wild Card round. Lined up against Butler and the Cardinals punt unit, Carolina shows eight men at the line of scrimmage:
On the snap, seven rush the punter with one man dropping off into coverage, suggesting an aggressive punt block attempt. However, the seven men rushing instead use “hold up” technique, with each simply trying to lock up their man. This is incredibly unusual, as this technique would typically employ fewer rushers with a greater emphasis on setting up the return. It makes very little sense, and doesn’t leave the Panthers in a good position for providing blocks down the field:
Circled in yellow are four Carolina blockers who may be trying to set up a wall return. Due to the chaos in the middle of the field (circled in red) the Panthers’ goal remains unclear. This is due to their inability to get off the line cleanly and get to their marks for blocking. Carolina is unlikely to take advantage of the inconsistency from the Seattle punt unit due to this lack of execution.
When Carolina Kicks Off
Graham Gano had a huge leg in the regular season, knocking an NFL-best 77.2% of his kicks for touchbacks. He was outstanding in the Wild Card round as well, with four touchbacks on six kicks, and the other two returned from at least six yards deep in the end zone. A valuable asset in the field position game, Gano should be able to pound the ball deep consistently. Unfortunately, the rest of the Carolina kickoff coverage lacks those superlatives, and it showed on a 48-yard return they gave up last week:
Gano hits a great ball six yards deep to the left corner of the end zone. As returner Ted Ginn Jr. brings it out, the entire Panthers team converges on the left side of the field (yellow circles). There are nine players to the left of the left hash. While coverage teams are supposed to force the play to one side, they also need to provide backside protection. In this case, they do not:
Ginn bounces to the right side of the field with several Carolina defenders in pursuit. While they manage to slide with Ginn, their momentum renders them unlikely to make a tackle with the returner still near his end zone. Ginn cuts upfield and avoids several tackles before finally being pushed out of bounds at the Panther 42-yard line.
The silver lining: Seattle ranks as the third-worst return team in the league, averaging just 21.0 yards per runback. Much like the New England Patriots, the Seahawks do not emphasize the kickoff return game, largely due to the rule changes from several years ago that limit blocking formations and increase the probability of touchbacks. They instead choose to focus their resources on other facets of the game that may have greater impact.
When Seattle Kicks Off
Steven Hauschka handles kickoff duties for the Seahawks and shows average skill in this department. He forced touchbacks on 52.3% of his kicks this year, right in line with the league average. Defensively, Seattle ranked 19th in the league in kickoff coverage, allowing 24.1 yards per return. The Seahawks show good discipline in staying in their lanes, but will allow themselves to get walled off on occasion due to this approach.
Across from them stands a Carolina return team that ranked ninth-worst in the NFL this year, gaining just 21.8 yards per return. Fozzy Whittaker, the primary return man for the Panthers, gets tasked with simply holding onto the ball and settling for any available yardage. While better than Seattle’s return squad, Carolina’s offers little in the way of excitement on their returns, and this is a matchup of two subpar units.
Gano has struggled with accuracy in his career, and did so again in the Wild Card round:
Gano sets up from 43 yards with 12:08 remaining in the second quarter. Nortman, his holder, gives him a spot on the inside of the right hash mark. The snap comes out and Nortman places his hold:
The ball is perfectly placed on the inside of the hash with the laces facing out. Gano approaches the ball and hooks it left of the uprights. This, unfortunately, is an all-too-common occurrence for Gano, as his career accuracy is a mere 79.1%. He presents a liability for the Panthers on PAT/FG, and this could be a negative factor in their game.
Hauschka handles field goals for the Seahawks, and has struggled in the latter part of the season. After making 94.3% of his kicks in 2013, he dropped to 83.8% this year, even enduring an 0-for-3 day in Week 16 against the Cardinals. His technique in that game was inconsistent, with his lead shoulder flying open and yanking him off the ball. This creates a similar effect to what a golfer sees, as the ball tends to either slice with reduced distance, or hook with reduced height. Neither outcome bodes well for a kicker, and Hauschka needs to have his problems corrected for this matchup.
Summary: Panthers at Seahawks Special Teams Preview
Ryan, the best player on these units, possesses the ability to change field position dramatically if at the top of his game. The rest of Seattle’s special teams lack elite skill, with most units merely passable for a playoff team. However, Carolina’s coverage teams are among the worst in the league, with their return squads not much better. The Panthers face a disadvantage against any team in the playoffs, and this is no exception. Seattle has the edge here, but more due to Carolina’s failures than anything else.
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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.