There are a variety of different strategies for punt coverage in the NFL. Some teams target a specific location on every kick. Some teams boom the ball deep with little regard for directional placement. The New England Patriots use an advanced directional game from their punter in tandem with outstanding punt gunner work to win the field position game. Chuck Zodda has the details on Ryan Allen and Matthew Slater.
Neither Ryan Allen nor Matthew Slater stand out on the stat sheet. Allen is tied for 13th in the league in gross punting average and ranks 16th in net punting average, the stats most commonly cited as a measure of a punter’s success. Slater has a pedestrian-sounding 17 tackles on the season, and despite being a wide receiver at UCLA, has caught exactly one pass in eight NFL seasons.
Yet the two of them form a formidable force in the punt game when the proper statistics are applied and the tape is examined.
For the 2015 season, Ryan Allen clocks in with a mark of 100% in target distance punted (TDP). This means that on average, Allen achieves the exact yardage demanded by the Patriots depending on the field position. Over the course of the year, Allen was strongest on open-field punts, notching TDP of 102%, while he underperformed slightly in pin-deep situations, reaching 97% of the expected distance in those scenarios.
New England’s strategy in open-field punting is varied, though the Patriots target the left numbers and sideline most often. Facing the New York Jets in Week 16, New England lines up to punt from its own 18-yard line:
Allen stands slightly to the right of long snapper Joe Cardona (#49). This is a key indicator the punt is likely to go to the left side of the field, as it allows Allen to angle his approach in that direction, yet still have his release point in the center of his blocking. Aligning to one side of the long snapper is the cleanest way for Allen to repeat the same mechanics every time, the two variables affecting the punt being his hold on the ball and the direction of his approach. His leg swing stays the same on every kick.
Allen gets the punt away facing minimal pressure and sends it sailing it down-field:
The ball lands 51 yards away at the New York 31 after 4.83 seconds of hang time, precisely on the left numbers. While Allen’s typical hang time in open-field situations is 4.40 seconds for the year, this kick shows Allen clearly has the capability to launch booming kicks that are in line with the elite talent in the NFL at the position.
However, something else stands out in this still as well. Slater (#18), receiver-turned-punt-gunner, is already on top of the Jets returner, Jeremy Kerley (#11). More impressive is the fact that the other New England gunner is 15 yards behind Slater, with the rest of the punt team another 15 yards behind him. While this is a beautiful kick from Allen, it is only because of Slater’s incredible ability to get downfield that this kick turns into a fair catch. And this is where Slater’s value to New England is – for the second year in a row, he led the NFL in tackles on punt returns, a stat that does not even account for plays like this where no tackle is made.
In pin-deep situations that favor accuracy over raw distance, Allen is deadly, utilizing a classic coffin corner punt to the right sideline to completely negate many returns. He lines up to punt from the Jets 46-yard line:
With the line of scrimmage just inside New York territory, Allen aligns himself slightly to the left of Cardona this time to angle his approach to the right. With a clean snap and launch, he boots the ball 40 yards downfield:
The ball bounces out of bounds on the right sideline at the New York 6-yard line. Appearing magnetically attracted to the ball, Slater, this time lined up as the right gunner, is once again right beside it. Over the course of the season, Allen landed 19 punts between the right numbers and right sideline – 15 of them came in pin-deep situations and only four of them resulted in returns.
While the duo of Allen and Slater do not stand out on first glance using traditional statistics, they show tremendous ability using more advanced metrics and film study. However, Allen’s Divisional Round TDP of 84% against the Kansas City Chiefs was his lowest for a single game this season, meaning he will need to bounce back facing the Denver Broncos in what could be a game that is decided by field position. He and Slater could be crucial to winning this battle.
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 NFL Game Pass.