The Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots both feature talented special teams performers. In the wake of Super Bowl XLIX, Chuck Zodda revisits concepts from his special teams previews, and looks at the battle between punter and returner — Jon Ryan vs Julian Edelman — that ensued in Arizona.
You may now resume regular breathing. After the pulse-pounding excitement of Super Bowl XLIX, needing two weeks to get back to normal adrenaline levels is understandable. While much of the discussion immediately after the game focused on Malcolm Butler’s last second interception of Russell Wilson, several other pieces shaped the game’s outcome. The clash between Seattle punter Jon Ryan and New England returner Julian Edelman lived up to its billing, with two top-notch specialists showing off their talents throughout the contest.
Punt One: The Jon Ryan Fair Catch Machine is Open For Business
Ryan’s calling card all season has been his ability to generate fair catches. His 36.1% rate in the regular season ranked third in the league, with Ryan’s outstanding hang time forcing many returners to abandon hope of productive yardage long before the ball touched their hands. Shown below, his first kick of the night generates a familiar result:
Seattle sets up on their 24-yard line after a quick three-and-out on their first drive. New England shows a different look than their previous playoff matchups against the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts, with eight men near the line of scrimmage. Five (circled in red) are on it, while three (circled in yellow) are stationed within several yards. The lack of six or more men directly on the line indicates this is not an aggressive formation to block the kick, but gives very few pre-snap clues as to the return team’s intent.
Immediately after the snap, the scheme becomes clear:
The Patriots have done their homework, recognizing that 62% of Ryan’s punts fall between the left numbers and left hash. They quickly send Patrick Chung (#23) and Tavon Wilson (#27) to the left side of the field (yellow arrows). As the play develops, Chung and Wilson locate their blocks:
Chung continues his route towards the left sideline, trying to double-team the left gunner. His route takes him outside the numbers, as he focuses on sealing his man to the sideline. Wilson doubles back towards the left hash as he scans for the right gunner, looking to wall him off. New England takes a basic middle return (in which a return team uses kick-out blocks to create a central path) and modifies it slightly to account for the punting tendencies of Ryan by initially sliding their blockers to the left.
Unfortunately for New England, Ryan’s first punt is up the middle of the field:
Edelman calls for the fair catch at his 32-yard line just ahead of the Super Bowl logo, receiving the ball after 4.6 seconds of hang time. In the NFL, any punt in the air longer than 4.5 seconds typically provides enough time for a punt team to get downfield in coverage. However, the area between the left hash and numbers is completely clear of any Seattle defenders, as the blocking scheme succeeded in creating space for a return. Ryan’s 44-yard kick traveled almost exactly his season average of 44.1 yards, but his placement here likely surprised the Patriots. It is not an ideal kick due to its location in the middle of the field, but the strong hang time was good enough to force Edelman to abandon the return and take the fair catch.
Punt Two: I Don’t Like Creed Song Lyrics, But Ryan Took This Punt Higher
The Patriots forced the second Seattle punt near the start of the second quarter. Setting up from the Seahawks 26-yard line, Ryan had ample opportunity to unleash a big kick to change field position:
New England reverts to their standard setup from their previous playoff games. Three men are off the line of scrimmage (yellow circles), with Danny Amendola (#80) backing away to be the short returner or act as a blocker. The Patriots also show four men (circled in red) along the line of scrimmage; after the snap they engage the Seattle offensive front, using hold-up technique to prevent them from advancing down the field:
Jonathan Casillas (#52) also attacks the right guard, while Matthew Slater (#18) waits several yards off the line of scrimmage. Slater’s primary responsibility is engaging the personal protector out of the backfield (blue arrow), redirecting him as he heads downfield. However, on this play, the Patriots’ blocking is unable to counter a great punt from Ryan:
Ryan puts the kick right where he wants it, three yards outside the left numbers. While it only travels 40 yards, it is precisely placed and hangs in the air for an impressive 4.7 seconds. The result is a 1-yard return for Edelman, a win for the Seattle unit.
Punt Three – You Could Stand on This Ball and Paint the Sistine Chapel
With 8:17 remaining in the second quarter, Ryan and the punt team jogged onto the field after the Seahawks continued their first-half offensive ineptitude with another three-and-out. This time, Ryan unleashed his best punt of the game, netting 50 yards on a 61-yard bomb from the 22-yard line:
New England aligns in the same formation as before, with three men standing (yellow circles) and four on the line of scrimmage (red circles). They once again bring very little pressure on Ryan and the Seattle offensive line, choosing instead to drop quickly for the return:
As Ryan’s punt rises into the Arizona troposphere, Edelman backtracks to receive the blast. Ahead of him, the Patriots employ a strategy similar to their first ‒ a middle return ‒ and attempt to force the Seahawks defenders to the outside (yellow blocking targets). Edelman continues his backwards route, finally catching the booming kick at his own 17-yard line:
After a ridiculous 4.8 seconds of hang time, the punt lands just inside the numbers, exactly where Ryan intended. Edelman controls the ball and heads upfield (red arrow). Two blockers clear a path between the hash and numbers (yellow blocking targets) and he is eventually forced out of bounds after an 11-yard return. Every facet of the punt’s execution ‒ location, hang time, and distance ‒ is flawless. You will not find a finer kick from Ryan all season, and to do it in a Super Bowl illustrates dedication to his craft.
First Half Summary
With a fair catch, a one-yard return, and a 50-yard net, Seattle claimed victory over the New England return unit in the first half. Ryan’s net average of 44.3 yards for the first half exceeded his gross average for the regular season. While the New England offense put 14 points on the board before halftime, Ryan did his job by neutralizing Edelman. In part 2, we look into whether that excellence carried into the second half of the Super Bowl.
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Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, the humanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.