Punt return units typically employ one of two general strategies – devote resources to an all-out block, or set up for a return. Facing the New York Giants in Week 10, the New England Patriots appeared to be bringing pressure on the Giants punt unit. But, as Chuck Zodda shows us, returner Danny Amendola wasn’t content to lay down and give New York the field position edge.
With 6:36 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Giants led 20-10 and were in near complete control of the game. Although punter Brad Wing (#9) and the rest of the New York punt team were summoned after a 3-and-out, the Giants were punting from their 47-yard line with a chance to pin the Patriots deep in their own territory:
New England sets up with eight men on the line of scrimmage, a clear indication that pressure is coming. In particular, Matthew Slater (#18, right side) tends to signal the intent of many Patriots special teams plays, as he is often deployed at the focal point of an attack.
Dwayne Harris (#17, blue box) has no one within ten yards of him, which could result in an audible by the punt team to a direct snap to the personal protector Craig Dahl (#43) and a pass to the flat to Harris. The Giants communicate pre-snap, but do not audible into this play.
James Morris (#46) is engaged on the man to his inside, but reaches out with his right arm (yellow circle) and locks it around Slater’s shoulders and neck, in what could be called a hold, but is seldom flagged on punts. Wing has the ball after a clean snap and is one step into his approach.
Slater (yellow box), who typically is the first man downfield in blocking, has turned to the referee and is complaining about the hold. While there is clear video evidence this occurred, if Slater had any other responsibilities, his personality is one to typically deal with it after the play instead of between the whistles. His behavior here shows that there is essentially no expectation from the Patriots that there will be any further significant action. Meanwhile, the New York gunners (blue circles) are already 25 yards downfield, with the rest of their coverage team on the way.
Danny Amendola sets up to receive the punt at his 11-yard line:
According to Bill Belichick, Amendola faked a “Peter” call, which is typically used on a short punt to keep the return team away from the area and clear of a potentially bouncing ball. Circled in green, two Patriots have their heads facing Amendola, and are pulling up and moving away from him. Harris continues to fly down the left side of the field, as he has not been touched, but he pulls up to the outside, likely because of the call by Amendola. Otherwise, his responsibility is to stay heads-up on the returner, or in the worst-case scenario, force him to the near sideline where he can use the boundary as a defender. There is no benefit to him going wide and allowing Amendola back into space.
Back near mid-field, three Patriots show no sign of significant movement back to block, with two players, one being Slater, adjusting helmets and a third jogging back toward the left numbers.
He splits the two gunners (black and orange boxes) and turns upfield, where he has absolutely no blocking. There are three Patriots (red boxes) inside the 35-yard line, while seven Giants bear down on Amendola. He draws the defenders in with a vertical move before cutting towards the center of the field:
There are two critical errors by the New York coverage team here that allow Amendola to get outside: The first is from Nikita Whitlock (#49, blue circle), who instead of maintaining his coverage lane just inside the numbers, gets stacked up on top of Mark Herzlich (#94). Just inside of him, long-snapper Zak DeOssie (#51) has already filled that hole, so Whitlock is out of position. He should be wider to leverage Amendola back to the left side of the frame.
Also out of position is Morris (orange box), who is not far enough upfield to begin squeezing down as much as he has. He needs to be 3-5 yards further upfield, and his momentum is taking him towards the left of the frame too quickly to adjust when Amendola bounces in his direction:
As Amendola heads to the center of the field, Herzlich sheds his block, but is quickly destroyed by a massive hit from Eric Martin (#53, yellow box). Amendola rounds the block and heads for the sideline, with Morris in pursuit, who is too far inside. However, Morris is about to get taken out of the play as well:
Nate Ebner (#43, yellow arrow) lines up Morris for a big block as Amendola turns the corner. He delivers without fail:
Having gotten to the sideline, Amendola sprints upfield. Slater, now back in the picture, turns to run with Amendola and spots Wing near the 50 yard line (yellow dotted arrow). Wing, despite being the swaggiest punter of all-time, is no match for Slater:
Wing goes down just shy of the 50-yard line, with a convoy building in front of Amendola. The unlikeliest of punt returns is about to become a touchdown. Until disaster strikes in the form of Duron Harmon’s toe:
Circled in red, Harmon and Amendola get their feet tangled at the 12-yard line, sending an exhausted Amendola into a heap where he is eventually tackled at the Giants 7-yard line.
Although the Patriots did not score on this play, they punched it in with a LeGarrette Blount touchdown three plays later, making the score 20-17 and getting back in a game that was slipping away from them. While this play was clearly designed to block the New York punt, Amendola’s smarts and poor coverage by several Giants allowed the Patriots to give a strong counterpunch at a critical moment in the game.
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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 NFL Game Pass.