There have been requests in the past year about a Special Teams post. There is not a lot of information out there for an area that makes up 1/3 of the game. So I decided to make the effort to learn more about this seemingly mysterious side of football. Allow me to share a little with you.
The quickest way to win a football game is with Special Teams. In fact, 1 out of every 5 plays each game involves ST's. When these Units are on the field, Large chunks of yardage, momentum or scoring are involved. Sometimes all three. You might say that the Special Teams are Football's version of the Transition game. ST's account for many of the points scored for and against a team each season. A strong ST Unit reinforces a team's offensive and defensive attacks by scoring, preventing a score, or achieving favorable field position. These squads are often made up of 3rd and 4th receivers, rookies, and guys who otherwise might not play.
Winning and losing in the NFL is largely a matter of field position, and that is determined in large part by Special Teams. Teams that win the battle of field position often win the game.
There are 5 categories of special teams; kickoff, kick return, punt coverage, punt return and field goal teams. In this post, I'd like to discuss the punting and coverage units.
The Punting Unit is the most important Special Team in football, because it is the most used. A good Coverage squad can pin the opponent deep in their own end of the field forcing them to drive further to score, allowing the defense to be more aggressive pressuring the QB. Similarly, a Return Unit that consistently moves the ball back upfield increases their offense's scoring chances. This can mean the difference between winning and losing 2 to 3 games a year. Also, in 90% of games in which a punt is blocked, the team that makes the block, wins the game. And as we saw this past season against the Redskins, an unexpected fake punt can change the outlook on a close contest. All players selected for the Punting team must have a strong sense of responsibility. They must be reliable and accountable. They should also be intelligent, know what their job is, and how to do it.
The philosophy for the Punting Unit is to kick the ball as fast as possible, provide solid protection, and cover quickly. Their goals should be to attain:
* No blocked punts
* No punts returned for TD's
* An average punt return of 4 yards or less
* A net punt average of 38 yards
* An average hang time of 4.5 seconds
* An average punt of 42 yards
* Create turnovers
Punting formations use a 5 man offensive line. Three "upbacks" (the Personal Protector and the Wings) line up approximately 3 yards behind the line, Two wide receivers (gunners) lineup out wide at the Line of Scrimmage (LOS), and the punter, who lines up 15 yards behind the LOS to receive the long snap. The number of upbacks and gunners can vary, and either position can be replaced by a tight end in a "max protect" situation.
The punt team starts with the specialists. The Punter and the Long Snapper are the foundation. Next in importance is the Personal Protector. Two Guards, two Tackles, two Wings, and two Gunners make up the rest of the unit. Let's take a look at them starting with the outside and moving in.
One of the most overlooked positions in football, the Gunner plays a vital role in special teams. During a punt, only the Gunners are permitted to go beyond the line before the ball is kicked. These two are allowed to start running down field as soon as the ball is snapped. The gunner's job is to release from the LOS and get down the field as fast as the kicked ball. They must take the fastest angle possible to the Returner and tackle whomever catches it. In the best case scenario, they get there just before the ball and make the other team afraid to try to catch it, thus preventing a return. Defensive Backs, Wide Receivers and Running Backs usually have the speed and skill set for the Gunner position.
When a team lines up to punt, the other team lines up in a defense that is designed to receive a punt. There will be a few players lined up on the gunners. If the defense lines up two defenders on each gunner, then they are hoping to slow the gunners down and try to run the punt back for a long gain or even a TD. If there is only one defender lined up on each gunner, then the receiving team has extra players rushing the punter, and they hope to block the punt.
As you can see in the picture, the Wings or Wing-men, are lined up outside the Tackle's to protect the outer edges of the line. But they will shift closer to the Personal Protector if the Defensive line is stacked for a power rush up the middle . The Wings line up with their inside toe directly behind the Tackle's outside heel, facing outward at a 45 degree angle. They are generally about an arm's length back from the Tackle's hip. Wings must be athletic enough to force a rusher wide around the Punter and strong enough to stop the power rush. A Strong Safety, a quick Linebacker, big Wide Receiver, or Fullback would be a good choice for the Wing position, but he must have the speed to keep the returner from getting around the corner near the sideline.
The Tackles need to have the size to protect and the agility to release, cover, and keep leverage on the Returner. They line up with their inside toe parallel to the Guards and about half an arm's length away. Tackles must be able to tackle and cover. Players that fit this type are Tight Ends, Linebackers, Strong Safety or Fullbacks.
The Guards must have the size to protect and not be overpowered or pulled. They are the closest players to the center gap and must help the Center with his spacing. They line up with their inside toe 6 inches outside and behind the Center's heel. Look for players with Tight End, Defensive End, Linebacker, or Fullback body types for the Guard position on Special Teams.
The Personal Protector is the Quarterback of the Punting unit. His responsibilities include making sure their are 11 players on the field. He also calls the protection package, snap count, and blocking assignments. He sets up 4 to 5 yards behind the Guard on the side of the Punters kicking leg. He identifies the opposing alignment; the number of rushers, whether they are overloaded on one side, stacked to one side (one behind another to stunt through a gap), or safe (not blitzing for a blocked punt). Next, he assigns the blocking package across the line to correspond to his read. He tells the Center which man is his responsibility to block, calling out "Ray" (right) or "Lou" (left). Then he calls "Set" to inform everyone to hold their position for the snap. When the center is ready, the snap occurs. After the snap, he is responsible for blocking the opposite Gap between the Center and Guard that the Center doesn't block. If the Center blocks to his right side, the Personal Protector takes the left Gap. He must be able to block 2 rushers if necessary.
In the NFL The Long Snapper is among the least known players because of his highly specialized and not very visible role on the field. Long Snappers are usually not drafted but are acquired as undrafted Free Agent's. Despite their anonymity, a team lacking a skilled long snapper can be seriously undermined. A famous example of this was in the 2002 wild card playoff game between the 49ers and Giants. During the regular season, the Giants had several missed FG's due to the lack of an experienced long snapper. They signed Trey Junkin out of retirement to be the snapper for the playoff game. Junkin botched a snap on a FG attempt that could have won the game for the Giants, who had led 38-14 at one point in the game.
Legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant estimated that 98% of blocked punts occur because of a poor snap, so the Long Snapper must be a perfectionist. He must have the ability to snap the ball 15 yards in less than 0.8 seconds, step back and block a gap, and then sprint down-field to cover the punt. Most NFL long snappers get the ball to the punter in 0.7 seconds and immediately attempt to make the tackle down-field. The player somatotype for a Long Snapper would be a Tight End, Defensive End, Linebacker, or Fullback. A player of this size will take up space at the line.
There is no fundamental distinction between punt snaps or field goal snaps. Only the target is different. The Long Snapper needs to focus and snap to the target. Proper technique is essential to a good snap. Alignment, footwork, balance, and upper body rhythm all play a part in that. If the snapper is not square to the LOS, he will make a one-handed snap which could go off target. Having flat feet, hopping, or beginning a snap with the arms instead of the feet results in a short snap. Falling forward or straightening the knees causes a high snap. And using the wrists instead of the forearms can result in a wobbly snap.
The Fundamentals of a Long Snap
First, he visualizes proper body position when addressing the ball. His feet should be parallel and at a comfortable width. They should also be even; using the hash marks or yard lines as a guide. His weight should be on the balls of his feet with the heels slightly elevated. The knees are bent and the back is straight, preferably parallel to the ground. The ball is situated far enough in front of the snapper that he has to extend his hands to reach it, while maintaining a squatting position with his back straight. The ball should be extended in front of the snappers nose. He places his off hand on a seam (on the ball) perpendicular to the ground. The wrists are cocked at, or near 90 degrees. The throwing (hiking) hand is flexed under the ball. The off hand is hyper-extended on top of the ball. The 1st or 2nd finger of the off hand is on the perpendicular seam.
Second, he focuses on his target. He visualizes the perfect snap to a specific spot on the punter such as the kicking hip, belt buckle, or hands.
Third, the snapper lets his body do the snapping. The hands merely direct the ball to the target; he generates movement by pushing off his toes. He tries to keep his back straight as his feet glide over the turf, by maintaining a bend in the knees. He drives both forearms through his thighs. Both palms are turned out, and the ball comes off the first fingers of both hands, finishing with them pointing directly at the target.
Fourth, the snapper works to get depth on the snap in preparation for his blocking assignment. He shuffles right or left as called by the Personal Protector. He blocks the defender in his area, keeping his body as square as possible to the LOS, then he releases and goes into coverage.
The Punter must also be a perfectionist. His athletic ability determines whether fake punts are an option -- be it running or passing, and how well he handles a bad snap. He should be able to develop into a functional passer. He must possess a strong leg and be able to get good hang time and distance. He should also be able to tackle well enough to not injure himself. Punters must be skilled in angling the football and/or kicking it as high as possible (hang time) to maximize his teams’ ability to prevent a punt return. Also, the punter will try to make the ball spin in an unusual manner making it harder to catch, which could result in a Muff and potentially lead to the punter's team gaining possession. Punting is 80% effort. Timing , coordination, rhythm, and control are more important than raw power. The Punter should be relaxed to be consistent. If he tries to hit the ball too hard, he will perform poorly.
Punters are rarely recognized by fans, but they play a major role in winning the field position battle. Some may have an increased duty as the holder on FG attempts due to the chemistry with the snapper and the familiarity of catching a long-snapped ball. Punters can also be kickers and naturally understand kicking mechanics better, such as knowing how far back to lean the ball, and being a better judge on whether or not to abort a FG attempt. Punters are also usually on their own for the most part during team practices, allowing them the time to work with the kicker, so the punter and placekicker tend to develop a close rapport. Many punters also double duty as kickoff specialists as most punters have been at one point FG kickers as well.
Timing is all important when executing the snap-to-punt. The snap should take 0.8 seconds. The punter should get the punt off in 1.3 seconds, Any longer than this 2.1 seconds risks a blocked punt or an early release by the cover men, which would incur a penalty. The number of steps a Punter takes is irrelevant, as long as he gets the punt away in a reasonable time and distance. The Standard is 4 yards or less handling distance time from catch to punt. Frequent practice on this timing will result in greater consistency in the Punt sequencing.
On rare occasions, a team will opt for a "fake punt," The punting unit lines up in formation and starts the process as normal, but instead does one of the following:
* The punter may choose to run with the ball.
* The ball may be snapped to the upback, who then runs with the ball.
* The upback could run the option to the punter.
* The punter (or upback) may decide to pass to a pre-designated receiver.
A fake punt is very rare, and is often used to keep a drive alive when a team is losing and needs to catch up quickly. The high risk and low success rate combined with the need for surprise, explains why this play is seldom called.
The first rule of coverage is to not let the return man get to the outside shoulder. Players need to keep him to their inside shoulders at all times. This allows the cover unit to converge on the return man using the shortest path to intersect him.
The pursuit of the returner is done typically in a Zone coverage, where each player has a responsibility. The Gunners take the fastest release possible, aiming for the Punt Returners outside number. The Personal Protector gets up to the returner, reads the return, and goes to the ball. The center heads straight upfield to the return man. The other linemen spread out into a coverage lane. They must not follow a teammate down the field. That is a Cardinal Sin for the Coverage Unit. The Guards lane is 5 yards from the Center position, the Tackles are 10 yards out, and the Wings are 15 yards out from Center. The Wings are responsible for outside containment of the Returner. These are the established coverage lane responsibilities.
When releasing to cover a punt, the players identify whether the opposing team is trying to rush the punt, or hold up the coverage. If they attempt to hold up the cover men, release techniques such as those used by Receivers against "press" coverage are applied. Pass rush techniques such as the Swim, Power underneath, Slap hands Off, or Stick moves are also used. Once the ball is fielded, everyone converges on the returner.
The players should gather their feet at a point 10 yards from the Punt Returner. This means that the player gets his body under control, lowers his hips, keeps his feet going, gets into hitting position, and stays square and balanced.
Players must sprint 100% of the time and give maximum effort. Anything less, gives the return team an opportunity to score. They must also respect the returner's right for the opportunity to field the ball when a "Fair Catch" is called. They should be in position to recover the ball in the case of a dropped punt, or Down the punt inside the 10 yard line.
For the Red Zone punt, the Center and the Personal Protector release straight toward the ball. The Guards, Tackles, and Wings have the same responsibilities as normal. The Gunner to the side of the punt goes behind the return man, looks for the ball, and protects the goal line. The Gunner away from the ball defines whether -- a Fair Catch will be made, a return, or if the ball is going over the returners head. Then he either goes to the returner or the goal line. In the Red Zone, he may catch the ball (to prevent a touchback) if the return man doesn't attempt to field the ball. Otherwise, the return man must be given the opportunity to field the punt. A coverage team is successful -- when it downs the ball inside the 10 yard line, allows a negative return, forces a Fair Catch, creates a Turnover, or scores a Touchdown.
If a punt is blocked, and does not cross the Line of Scrimmage, the ball is still in play. Either side may advance the ball. If the ball (whether it is blocked or not) passes the LOS it is treated like any other punt.
As you can see, there is a good reason why they are called Special Teams. The ability to change momentum, field position or the score of a game is an excellent argument why detail should be made to this area of a football team.