Chuck Zodda has an infatuation with special teams. He enjoys long punts through the air, well-lit wall returns, and quiet time spent alone with punt gunners. But he also has a side that loves confrontation – in this case, the epic battle about to be waged between the Indianapolis Colts‘ Pat McAfee and New England Patriots‘ Julian Edelman in the AFC Championship Game.
With his play throughout his six-year NFL career, Pat McAfee has earned accolades that could fill the Library of Congress if written in large-point type, and several pages if written in standard text. Font size aside, McAfee is an outstanding punter who excels at generating hang time, possesses exceptional distance and directional control, and, of course, features the big leg to get his team out of trouble in their own territory. These tools allow McAfee to tailor his game to any situation, making him an incredibly valuable member of the Indianapolis Colts. However, in breaking down McAfee’s game, there could be areas for the New England Patriots to exploit in their AFC Championship showdown.
A Leg For All Seasons
There is no punt that McAfee can’t hit. First and foremost, he has the raw leg strength to clear the ball from Colts territory with room to spare. McAfee boomed 42% of his kicks for more than 50 yards this season. Of the remaining 58%, only six kicks were from deep in Indianapolis territory (the Colts’ own 40-yard line or worse), meaning McAfee rarely sets up an opponent with a short field.
Beyond that, McAfee is outstanding when it comes to directional kicking. NFL teams often target sidelines on punts, as the boundary acts as a defender in preventing a return in that direction. McAfee landed 76.8% of his punts outside the numbers in the regular season. For comparison, Patriots punter Ryan Allen saw just 43.9% of his punts land in the same area. McAfee tends to exploit the left side of the field more often, with 35 of 69 kicks landing outside the left numbers, compared to only 17 kicks landing outside the right numbers. This is unusual for a right-footed punter, as his ball moves from right to left as it travels downfield, making kicks down the right side easier in many cases. When kicking to the left side of the field, many right-footed punters find they lack the ability to stop the ball from cutting into the sideline because of this action, but McAfee does not have this problem.
Distance control is another strong suit for McAfee. He had only three touchbacks in the regular season, though he has racked up three more in two playoff games. Recent struggles aside, McAfee is a good bet to pin a team deep in their territory with a kick that is incredibly difficult to return.
In previews for the Wild Card and Divisional Round games, we detailed the Indianapolis punt unit and its unorthodox approach to coverage. The Colts tend to pinch down excessively, which can leave them vulnerable to backside returns. One such example happened against Washington earlier this season:
This is the scene just after McAfee strikes the ball. Players are scattered near the 20-yard line, but one Washington blocker stands out and indicates what the returner intends to do. Circled in yellow, he begins to loop to the right of the screen, setting up a block to seal off that side of the field.
As the returner catches the ball at the numbers, a number of other blockers are in position as well:
The previously highlighted player lines up a critical block to take on the Colts player nearest the returner. Two other blockers (circled in yellow) are free and in position to seal off other Indianapolis defenders who are closing in quickly. However, the situation gets worse for the Colts:
Circled in blue are five Indianapolis defenders locked in on the returner. Unbeknown to them, Washington has set up a wall of five blockers down the right side of the field (circled in yellow). The play resulted in an 11-yard return, nearly twice the 5.9-yard average the Colts held opponents to this season, but it could have been far worse.
Indianapolis pinches down on returners largely because they have a tremendous amount of faith in McAfee to put the ball exactly where they expect. The downside to this approach is that a strong returner can use this aggressiveness against them, especially if paired with a good scheme. Unfortunately for the Colts, the Patriots have both.
The Scientist and The Magician
The Patriots run a number of different approaches, changing up their scheme based on their opponent. Against the Chicago Bears, they employed a wall return to great success, with Julian Edelman picking up 42 yards on a perfectly executed runback. Two weeks later against the Denver Broncos, they utilized kick-out blocks to create a gap up the middle for Edelman. Facing the Colts, the Patriots will likely turn to a combination of wall returns, as well as a number of tactics they showed against the Baltimore Ravens last week.
The Ravens are a great study, as Sam Koch is one of the few punters in the league who can go toe-to-toe with McAfee on directional ability. Let’s look at how New England attacked the Baltimore coverage unit:
The Patriots align with six men near the line of scrimmage (circled in yellow). Four line up in three-point stances, with two others standing just behind. Not pictured is Danny Amendola, who is 25 yards downfield, halfway between Edelman and the punt formation. Koch receives the snap and booms the ball downfield:
As the ball is kicked, Amendola (#80) comes into view, sliding to the left (yellow blocking target) to block the lead Ravens defender (red arrow). Amendola engages him nearly straight on, coming slightly from the inside as he locks him up:
Edelman (#11, circled) catches the ball four yards outside the left numbers. Making a bee-line upfield, he quickly gains distance while Amendola engages his block. Toward the left sideline, several Patriots seal off three Baltimore defenders. This is a critical part of the New England strategy against directional kicking: They aim to use the defense’s zeal – a zeal bred of the confidence in knowing exactly where the kick will land – to get downfield to their advantage, harnessing the Colts players’ energy and riding them all the way past where the kick actually lands. Edelman picks up 12 yards on the return, nearly double the 7.2-yard average the Ravens posted in the regular season.
But the Patriots are not a one-trick pony when it comes to their return scheme. If they attempted the same blocks on every runback, they would be predictable and easy to counter. So instead, they give multiple looks. Facing Koch again, they set up with the exact same formation:
They once again have six men near the line of scrimmage, with four in three-point stances and two behind them. Once more, Amendola is out of view, 25-yards downfield. Koch hammers the ball again, this time to the right side of the field:
In the previous example, Amendola attacked his block from the inside out, trying to seal him toward the sideline. However, in this case, Amendola sprints to get outside leverage on his man and attack from the outside in (yellow blocking target). Unfortunately, the New England blockers assigned to the gunner fail their assignment, allowing him to burst past them:
With the gunner bearing down on him, Edelman catches the ball and takes a jab step inside. The gunner, still moving at high-speed, bites on the fake, allowing Edelman to bounce to the outside – right where Amendola’s block indicated he would go. Furthermore, the blocking upfield attempts to seal off the sideline as well, with two Patriots forcing their blocks to the inside (yellow blocking targets). Here, Edelman picks up 19 yards down the sideline, nearly tripling the average return against Baltimore.
But Edelman had one more chance to field a punt. With Koch out to kick once more, the Patriots showed a different initial alignment:
This time, they display eight men near the line of scrimmage, rushing seven to bring greater pressure. Only Patrick Chung (#23) drops away from the line, though Amendola is already downfield again. Koch gets the punt off cleanly, and both teams start downfield:
The blockers for Baltimore’s right gunner attempt to force him to the sideline, but he is able to avoid their assault and continue on to Edelman. Further upfield, several Patriots attempt to seal the Ravens outside the numbers, indicating the preferred return is inside once more.
However, Edelman is forced to spin outside to avoid the gunner – and oh does he spin:
After completing his Madden-esque pirouette, Edelman briefly heads upfield before jump-cutting to the inside:
Nearly every New England blocker is forcing their blocks to the edge of the field, as the Patriots have returned to their initial scheme, despite the different look at the snap. Edelman gains 14 yards on this return, again besting the Baltimore average.
Edelman and the Patriots faced a very similar punter last week in Koch, and were able to use his directional abilities against him through strong game-planning and great execution. While McAfee presents significant challenges, New England has clearly shown the skill to not only handle directional kicks to either side of the field, but also to exploit the weaknesses created by them. There are few teams that possess this ability, and this matchup should be a treat, as these are two of the best units in the league.
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.