Darren Sproles punt return for a Philadelphia Eagles touchdown against the Carolina Panthers helped lift his team to a 7-2 record. Special teams have been key for the Eagles, who are on a historic pace for touchdowns ‒ and for featured articles by Chuck Zodda ‒ who explores this play.
In Philadelphia, special teams play carries added weight. Head coach Chip Kelly has emphasized these units since taking the helm in January 2013. Teamrankings.com estimates the Eagles special teams have been worth 3.6 points per game this season, well over twice the output of the second-ranked New England Patriots (1.6).
To that end this past March, Kelly and the Eagles brought dynamic kick returner Darren Sproles aboard, acquiring him from the New Orleans Saints for a 5th-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Sproles entered the league in 2005 after an electric career at Kansas State. Passed over early in the draft due to his size, he fell to the 4th round where the San Diego Chargers drafted him with the 130th overall pick. In 2011, Sproles signed a 4-year, $14 million deal with the Saints. With this spring’s trade, Sproles brought his ability to terrorize defenses on runs, passes, and returns of all kinds to the city of brotherly love.
Through Week 10 this season, Sproles has performed strongly with his new team in both the running and passing games, but is having a career season as a returner, already notching two punt return touchdowns. However, as the video from his most recent scoring runback shows, it was not solely Sproles’ ability that paved his path to the end zone.
With 3:29 remaining in the first quarter, the Carolina Panthers brought on their punt team after a three-and-out and a false start penalty. With the ball on the Panthers’ 10-yard line, punter Brad Nortman lined up four yards deep in his own end zone to kick to Sproles. On the other side of the line, the Eagles showed eight men near the line of scrimmage. However, Chris Prosinski (#33) drops away from the line shortly after the snap, as indicated by the yellow arrow pointing upward in the still below:
The Eagles also leave Chris Maragos (#42) in position slightly off the line as a spy for a fake punt, indicated by the arrows on either side of him. The other six Eagles are all set up on the line of scrimmage and ready to rush Nortman.
Immediately after the snap, the Eagles pressure the Panthers linemen:
Prosinski drops away from the line of scrimmage and into position to block later in the play. Maragos is still sitting two yards off the line of scrimmage, reading the punt team for any signs of a fake. However, the key matchup here is circled in yellow. A.J. Klein (#56) is a second-year linebacker out of Iowa State who has been a key cog in the Panthers’ special teams since being drafted. Across the line from him is former college quarterback Brad Smith (#16), who has been a regular on special teams units with the Jets, Bills, and Eagles since coming into the league in 2006. Klein initially gets a good block on Smith, holding him up at the line of scrimmage and preventing him from gaining any ground on Nortman before his punt.
The battle between these two players is fascinating to watch throughout the play. Still circled in yellow, the two players begin to head downfield just after the punt:
At this point, Klein and Smith are essentially even with each other, jostling for position as they work towards Sproles. Each player is utilizing his hands for leverage in the hopes of gaining separation. Neither seems to have an appreciable advantage at this point, and this sets the stage for a clash that will continue all the way down the field.
As the play continues, Smith gets the upper hand:
Smith has jumped in front of Klein, and now appears to have an early advantage. This will allow him to set a block once he works downfield. Blockers do not engage for the entire length of the kick, as it is incredibly difficult to maintain leverage for that length of time. If a player were to attempt it, he would likely lose his man early in the return or end up with a holding penalty. Because of this, punt return blockers typically work down the field towards the returner before attempting to plant their feet and make a strong block closer to the returner. This is Smith’s end-game on the play.
However, Klein has other ideas:
Klein cuts to his left, looping around Smith. While this does put Klein slightly out of his lane in the middle of the field, the Panthers still have good spacing horizontally, and do not appear to have any major issues in their coverage at the moment. Sproles is waiting patiently for the punt at his own 35-yard line as the other players continue to gain ground on him.
As Sproles receives the kick, the coverage team for the Panthers still has quite a bit of distance to make up:
The nearest Panther is still ten yards away from him, with the rest of the coverage team trailing at least five yards behind and most even further back. Sproles, circled in red, makes the decision to take the return right through the heart of the Carolina coverage unit. Circled in yellow, the battle between Klein and Smith appears to have turned, with Klein now even with Smith as the two of them pass the Panthers’ 40-yard line.
As Sproles accelerates, the key moment of this play starts to take shape:
Circled in yellow to the right of Sproles is long snapper J.J. Jansen (#44). He is unblocked and appears to have a chance at making a play on the returner. However, behind him, the picture is more concerning for the Panthers. Returners look for walls of similar colors as keys for where their runback should go. A wall of their own team’s color implies that there is a lane to run through, as there are no opposing players inside of that leverage. Likewise, returners will seek to run away from walls of an opposing team’s color for obvious reasons. On the outside of the two blue arcs, there are clear walls of safe color that Sproles has noticed, and he makes a beeline for the gap between these walls.
Also circled in yellow (left of the Eagles field logo), Klein is now a half-step ahead of Smith and has closed to within fifteen yards of Sproles. He appears to have the edge on Smith, who has inside positioning on him but is behind him on the field. The fight that has been ongoing for the past 35 yards is about to reach its climax.
Sproles uses his quickness to elude capture by Jansen, and now is heads-to-head with Klein, circled in yellow:
Klein is at the Eagles 49-yard line and in perfect position to make the tackle on Sproles. Smith is now fully behind him and, while slightly outside of Sproles, this is a tackle that any NFL player should be able to make. At the very least, Klein should be able to slow Sproles down, even if he does not make the final stop. What happens instead? Cheating:
Klein has been blocked in the back by Smith, which was enough of a bump to prevent him from making the tackle. Remember that Klein had been at the Eagles’ 49-yard line when preparing to tackle Sproles. Klein is now on all fours at the Eagles’ 46-yard line, three yards further downfield than he was previously. Smith’s block in the back prevented Klein from making the tackle:
Without this block, Sproles is either tackled or slowed by Klein, and is likely not able to take this return for a touchdown. Instead, Sproles is one-on-one with Nortman who, despite congratulating himself on generating nearly 4.8 seconds of hang time, now has to attempt a tackle on the speedster.
Yeah, good luck with that:
Sproles cuts to his right, and blazes past Nortman easily. While there was a lot going on throughout this play, the matchup between Klein and Smith was a critical piece that ended up generating the block in the back to spring Sproles. Here’s the full video of the play:
Unfortunately for Carolina, the illegal block was not called by the officials, and this play provided a major boost in momentum for the Eagles near the end of the first quarter. While Sproles was able to rack up his second punt return touchdown of the year, this was not simply due to his effort or great team play, but rather a missed call by the officials that directly affected the outcome.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind. Jake Vincent contributed to this article.
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