The Lions at Cowboys special teams preview looks at the kickoff and punt coverage units, the return teams, plus the kickers and punters for both teams.
The Dallas Cowboys come into this tilt at 12-4, having dominated the NFC East in wire-to-wire fashion. With a strong running attack and competent defense, Dallas is built for the postseason. The Cowboys’ special teams allow them to compete capably in the field position game, and aids in scoring from range on field goals as well.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Lions made it through the season with four losses to playoff teams and one to the 9-7 Buffalo Bills. While Detroit is strong in the punt game and on kickoffs, they do have issues with their field goal unit that may present problems in this matchup.
When Dallas Punts
Chris Jones is in his second full season with the Cowboys after playing part-time in 2011 and 2012 with them. He finished 2014 as a middle-of-the-pack punter, with his gross average of 45.4 yards just above the 45.25 mark for the league. Distance control is a strong suit, with 36.8% of his punts landing inside the 20-yard line, compared to only 3.5% resulting in touchbacks. Without a long track record, it remains to be seen whether or not he can replicate these numbers consistently, as he saw 7.8% of his kicks go for touchbacks in 2013. He’s merely average at generating fair catches, as his 26.3% rate for the year is just below the league mean of 27.4%.
Jones is a lefty who feels more comfortable kicking to his left, as this allows him to let the natural flight path of his ball take it down the left sideline. This was on display earlier this season against the Philadelphia Eagles at Cowboys Stadium:
Jones places the ball within several yards of the sidelines, limiting the options for explosive return man Darren Spoles (circled in yellow). The Cowboys typically kick to the same side the ball is snapped from: when on the right hash, they will demand that Jones kick towards the right numbers. Unfortunately, Jones does not yet have the same skill to this side of the field, as his punts tend to scatter around the right numbers:
On this kick to Sproles (yellow circle), the kick lands midway between the hash and numbers. Later on, we see a similar kick:
Jones will need to improve this going forward if he wants to move into the upper echelon of NFL punters.
Facing Jones, and the Cowboys, is a Lions return team that is also middle-of-the-pack, ranking 15th in the league with 8.9 yards per return and a long of 28 yards. Jeremy Ross is the only Lion to return kicks this season, displaying little in the way of unique ability. He is capable, but not a playmaker for the Lions.
The Lions use some baffling schemes when attempting to block punts. Against the Green Bay Packers, they lined up with eight men across the line of scrimmage:
Indicated in yellow, they run a twist on the left side of the line. But instead of stunting towards the middle to create a shorter path for the rusher, they run the twist to the outside. They still generate some pressure, but it doesn’t make sense in any context.
Later on in the season, they run a similar play from a formation with six men on the line of scrimmage and one just behind it:
Isa Abdul-Quddus (#42) comes around the left side of a lineman as the ball is snapped, producing pressure on the left side. Once again, the Lions appear to force pressure in an area that does not have a major impact on the kick.
Overall, these two units are evenly matched, with both of them being average with little flash.
When Detroit Punts
While St. Louis Rams kicker Greg Zeurlein is referred to as “Legatron”, that honor should probably go to Calvin Johnson’s teammate Sam Martin. The Lions punter has one of the biggest legs in the NFL, generating ridiculous hang times in the upper 4-second range with great consistency. He averages 46.1 yards per kick, with 42.6% of his punts landing inside the 20-yard line. His hang time allows him to force fair catches on 30.9% of kicks, above the 27.4% average.
Martin’s directional abilities are near the top of the league as well. In particular, he is very adept to the right side of the field:
Martin pins the Chicago Bears’ returner between the sideline and the numbers on this punt, drastically limiting his return options.
But Martin’s masterpiece this season was this blast against the New England Patriots:
Martin puts the ball within a yard of the sideline, giving Julian Edelman an incredibly difficult catch to make with any type of positive momentum -he type of kick that punters dream of. This was clearly one of the best punts of the season.
For the Cowboys, Dwayne Harris fielded most of Dallas’s returns, and he has been slightly above average,ranking 13th in the league in yards per return at 9.2, with a long of 38 yards. Much like the Lions’ Ross, Harris doesn’t exhibit flashy ability, but provides stability to the unit.
Scheme-wise, Dallas isn’t particularly innovative, but disguises their looks well at the line of scrimmage. Against Washington, they displayed six men along the line of scrimmage with one man behind it:
On the snap, Jeff Heath (#38) and Kyle Wilber (#51) take off to the right (yellow arrows) of the screen. In pulling Wilbur off the line of scrimmage, the Cowboys are attempting to hide him in the chaos of the ensuing punt. But more importantly, this gives a clear indication as to where Dallas is returning the kick:
Heath and Wilbur are making their way downfield, but the key detail here is their head position. Both are looking back to the left as they attempt to locate future blocks they will force in that direction. This is a clear setup for a right return, and the Cowboys get great execution from their players.
Overall, Detroit has a clear advantage in this fight, as the big leg of Martin should be able to wreak havoc with the Cowboys starting field position.
When Dallas Kicks Off
Dan Bailey handles kickoff duties for Dallas. Now in his fourth season, Bailey has a big leg, but it has not always translated into consistent results. This year, he created touchbacks on 55.3% of his kicks, just above the 52.3% league average. He is aided by a phenomenal coverage unit that gives up just 21.3 yards per return, good for sixth-lowest in the league.
Facing Bailey will be a Detroit return unit that finished in the top third of the league. The Lions are 10th in yards per return at 24.5, despite having a long return of only 41 yards this season. Ross handles most of the duties, though George Winn also has two returns on the season. Overall, this is a stable unit that is consistently productive, but not outstanding.
This should be an even competition between these two squads, with neither having the clear upper hand.
When Detroit Kicks Off
Given Martin’s ridiculous leg, the Lions utilize their punter as their kickoff specialist. Martin forces touchbacks on 72.6% of his kicks. On the off chance that Dallas can bring the ball out, the Lions are vulnerable, giving up 27.2 yards per return. They will hope Martin can keep the Cowboys pinned deep throughout the game.
Dallas, and Harris, are almost exactly average in the kickoff return game, notching 23.9 yards per return compared to 23.8 for the NFL. As you will see below, the Cowboys do not run particularly complicated scheme, but get great effort and blocking from their players on this unit:
On this play, eight Dallas blockers are engaged on block (yellow circles). While the Cowboys do almost nothing to create mismatches here, the timing and effort displayed it top-notch, which allows them to be solid in this phase of the game.
Detroit has the advantage here due to Martin’s distance off the tee, but needs to be careful to avoid lapses that could lead to a long return.
Bailey has a great leg for the Cowboys, but is in the middle of the pack as far as accuracy goes this year, with an 86.2% mark on field goal attempts. He poses a long-distance threat and provides Dallas an option in situations with the clock winding down. Bailey scored above 93% in field goal percentage in 2012 and 2013, and is a good bet in any scenario.
Detroit is the worst placekicking team in all of football, having converted only 65.8% of their FGAs this season. Fortunately, Matt Prater took over after disastrous results from Nate Freese and Alex Henery, and has made 80.8% of his kicks. Despite the improvement, that number still ranks just 24th in the league, and Prater ‒ like any midseason replacement ‒ is a question mark.
Dallas has the upper hand in this contest, with the dependable Bailey and his strong boot.
Summary: Lions at Cowboys Special Teams Preview
These two squads are very different on special teams, with Detroit relying on the big leg of Martin on the punt and kickoff units, while Dallas has a clear advantage in scoring due to Bailey on field goals. Overall, Detroit’s strength due to their ability to change field position likely gives them a small advantage for the game.
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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.