ST's-The Punt Return Part 1

Today's topic is the Punt Return Unit. I'm no coach, but I was interested in learning about the Special Teams. Since I couldn't find anything extensive on the subject within the SB Nation Blog sites, I decided to research it for myself. Follow along and I will show you what I found.

The Punt Return is considered to be the first play of the offensive series. The defense has achieved a stop, providing a psychological lift. A good return could further tilt the momentum towards the Offense. By providing a shorter field to score, the chances of scoring increase. The unit must play sound football and avoid creating a negative play for it's team.

On the Punt play, the Return team should prepare to go on the attack. The overall goal is to win the field position battle. To return a punt for a touchdown is ideal, but it is not realistic to expect that to happen each time. Our own Rick Upchurch scored an NFL record 4 times on punt returns in 1976, a record that has been tied many times since but never broken. With that in mind, the next achievable goal would be to average 10 yards per return. By doing this, the Return team takes some of the pressure off of the offense by presenting them with a better scoring chance.

There are other things a Punt Return Unit can do to create good field position. Pressuring the punter into making a poor punt or blocking the punt can be a good measure of success for a Return team. Success can also be determined by calculating the opponent's net punt average, or, the yards the opponent gains after all yards are tallied on the play. An NFL team who keeps their opposing punt team to 33 or fewer net yards per punt, will be near the top of the league.

The Punt Return Unit must ensure that after the punting play is completed, the offense takes the field. It takes 3 things to accomplish this:

1. The players must account for any fake punt possibility by playing defense first.

2. They must play with discipline at the line of scrimmage, in substitution, and around the punter to avoid penalties that create first downs. Failures in this area cause a loss in momentum and brings the defensive unit back on to the field after they had just done their job. It is a letdown for the team and can take the crowd right out of the game. We all know how big the 12th man is for the home team.

3. They need to protect the football with the punt catch and return. Fumbles at the return end are devastating and often lead to a quick score by the opposing team.

If these 3 things are done on a consistent basis, the offense will always start on a positive note.

Maintaining an aggressive, attack-oriented mentality is the best approach. The Punt Return is a great opportunity to create big plays. Big plays can happen by outplaying the opponent both individually and collectively. To win the play, the majority of the individual battles need to be won. The effectiveness of the Punt Return Unit is really a result of players' tenaciousness in every technique. Coaches can give the players other advantages needed for success by starting with the big picture and moving down through each detail.

More than any other phase of the game, this phase of the game is about effort. Most teams give a positive effort but rarely do they take it to the next level. Firm, determined holdups and smart finishing blocks lead to big plays. Punt Return Units can develop a reputation for their effort. They can become known for pressuring punters into poor punts by in-your-face aggressive rushes, and they can also be known for blocking punts. Those psychological edges can make a difference in field position by forcing the punter into making a shanked or hurried punt. Adopting these principles will help the Punt Return:

Knowledge - The PR Unit should thoroughly understand their job and their opponent.

Speed and Effort - Players on the PR Unit must have the ability and willingness to expend the necessary effort to get in position to make plays.

Technique - A player can beat a similarly talented and motivated player by understanding the geometry of the play, knowing the rules, and using the proper approach.

Discipline - Big plays are unnecessarily called back way too often because of penalties. These penalties are the result of a lack of understanding or effort to do it the right way. Any player can make any block if they know the right tactic to employ and can do it at full speed.

Persistence - Not every punt provides the chance for a block or big return. Players must be resolute to do it great each time out. "Nobody knows the hour," that a bad snap or mental error can occur.

Special Teams Unit's should adopt the motto, "Superior effort combined with solid self-discipline creates success!"



The aim of the Punt Return Unit is to create big plays in any way possible. Big punt return plays share certain characteristics that a team should strive to consistently achieve. Some factors that govern great punt returns include:

  • The returner demonstrates good ball-handling and decision making on a consistent basis.
  • The ball carrier uses aggressive north-south running.
  • In coverage, the blockers are able to control the Gunners and Fullback (quick releasers).
  • The players being able to disrupt the coverage vertically or horizontally with good blocking.
  • Everyone playing smart fundamentally sound football.

The players on the Punt Return Unit must play disciplined, intelligent football just like any other player in any other part of the game. They should follow certain guidelines to accomplish that type of play. Disciplined and smart players:

  • Know the rules.
  • Make sure the proper players are on the field.
  • Block above the waist, never in the back.
  • Know when to use their bodies instead of their hands to block.
  • Respect the punter; hitting or running into him is too costly.
  • Stay onside and recognize when the punting team will try to draw them offside.
  • Check teammates for onside alignments.
  • Get away from "poison" balls. Example: A shortened or shanked punt that should be allowed to bounce further downfield to maximize field position.
  • Be alert defensively to all fakes, and
  • Make the quality split-second judgements and decisions in various situations.


"Success is almost totally dependent upon drive and persistence. The extra energy required to make another effort or try another approach is the secret of winning." - Denis Waitley

In order to outplay their opponents, players need to out-execute them. There are only two ways to do so, and they go hand in hand. First, the players must put forth their utmost effort. They must play incredibly hard because a worthy opponent will do so as well. Second, the players must play better than their opponent. The primary responsibility for making that happen falls on the coach. Only the coach can devise styles and techniques superior to their opponent's and teach them well so the players can execute them.

Every block can be made. It's just a matter of knowing how to get it done and the willingness to put forth the diligent effort to do so. The player can quickly go through a mental checklist as he sets up for the play. That progression would go something like this:

Set up in the proper alignment.

Be aware of the fake responsibility.

3. See the ball and takeoff key.

4. Get a great start with the proper angles and body position. Push off the front foot.

5. Properly react to fakes when one occurs out of the blue.

6. Beat your man to the punch with a quick start. Change up the scheme to keep him off balance.

7. Execute effective and disciplined blocking techniques.


To carry out his assignment, the player should be prepared to find a way to block his man from the very start of the play. To block effectively, the player needs to be equipped with various tools. No two punt returns are ever exactly the same. The following are tools that the players can use to make those blocks. The Holdup, Trail and Harass, Counter Trail, Deep, Backside Wall and The Finish.




The Punt Return blockers want to keep their men from releasing vertically into the punt coverage as long as they can. Their goal is to create as much vertical separation as possible between the coverage unit and the returner. By doing this, the blocking unit establishes free space for the ball carrier to run upfield. For the Holdup method, the following applications should be used:

  • With strong hands, fit into the block inside the opponent's framework (from the arm pits in). Work heavy on the coverage man's outside number since most teams release outside in order to fan out on the field. Stay square and in front of the opponent to close the gate on his release from the line of scrimmage.
  • Strike to gain control of the opponent's balance. Time the Punch with the legs, hips, and torso as well as the hands to deliver a blow (usually on the second or third step).
  • Keeping his Base up to control balance until the opponent responds, the blocker should then drop his weight and widen his base. This lowers his center of gravity to anchor for the initial block. His hands should be above the head and the hips should be bent and low.
  • Move your feet and work your hands to maintain the closed gate to stick and stay in front of the opponent. This skill is all about being persistent.


After the opponent releases, the blocking player's job is to control the opponent's progress down the field. His next objective is to widen the opponent's route and slow him down. Taking the opposing player off his desired path (coverage lane) disrupts the spacing of the cover unit and creates horizontal seams in the coverage. By impeding his progress and slowing him down, it creates vertical space for the return man. The method for the Trail and Harass technique is to:

  • Immediately widen the opponent's route with a hard shove as he releases from the line of scrimmage.
  • Run slightly behind the opponent on his inside hip.
  • Harass the opposing player by pushing him on the side or knocking his arm off stride as he runs downfield.
  • Anticipate the angles that are being created and work to establish good positioning to finish the block.


The Counter-trail technique is a change-up of the Trail and Harass technique. If the blocker shows the Trail and Harass to the opposite side of the intended return direction, the opponent will tend to overplay (the whole unit over-pursues their position). At 15 to 20 yards from the returner, the blocker pulls himself across the covering player's body and works him to the return side.


The Deep technique is a block directly in front of the returner. A designated dropper or a second returner carries out the block. The purpose for this scheme is to establish a blocker directly in front of the return man. This blocker accounts for the first Gunner downfield that poses a threat to the ball carrier. This deep player may end up blocking a player that got by his initial blocker, or he may end up blocking an unaccounted cover man. The player should:

Fulfill his initial fake responsibility by clearing the punt before turning and running. "Clearing" being, waiting until the punt is away.

Sprint on an angle, chasing the punt to get in front of the returner.

Setup 10 to 15 yards in front of the ball carrier.

Setup on the run if the ball gets to the return man before you get there.

Block the most dangerous man (MDM) whichever way he wants to go. Use his momentum to your advantage.

Know who is unblocked in the scheme, who the best opposing cover men are, and where the vulnerable corner is.

7. Check for a quick release threat.

There are always punt coverage players that can't be accounted for, especially if the return scheme called for chooses to use to blockers on one cover guy. The Special Teams coach will decide which player to leave unblocked. He can either pick out the less able (weakest link) coverage player or establish a play that blocks the most dangerous cover man once the punt begins to play out. This may leave the unblocked player one-on-one with the returner and the coach may like those odds. Both schemes can be used, but should not be used at the same time.


The Deep method is one way to take care of the MDM. Another way to block the most dangerous cover man is to sort out the faster players on the backside of directional returns. This is the Backside wall technique. This scheme is used when the Return Unit blocks two on three with the front blockers on the backside of a directional return play. Two players on the backside of the return are assigned to block the most dangerous Guard, Tackle, and Slot player. These are the cover men who get out the fastest and become the most immediate threat to the ball carrier. Their progression is as follows:

1. The backside inside player secures the fake and stays out of picks.

2. After the punt, he sprints directly at the returner, to a point 15 yards in front of him.

3. He finds and blocks the most dangerous Guard, Tackle, or Slot.
4. The backside outside player usually forces the punt with an aggressive rush.

5. He also finds the return man and sprints at him, chasing his partner, the inside blocker.

6. He finds and blocks the second MDM on the backside.


To achieve a great finish, players must understand the coverage geometry. The ST coach needs to convey to the blockers on the "big picture" of the play. Punt coverage players must take certain angles to get in position to make the tackle. Even though these angles become apparent once the return play begins to develop, they can be anticipated. The cover man must anticipate these angles, and if he can see them, so can the blocker. When the blocker anticipates the angle, he can get into position in the cover man's path and set up the block. In effect, the block comes to him. No two return plays ever set up exactly the same way however, so the blockers must learn to anticipate the general speed and angles. This is the geometry of the play. If the players can understand the geometry, they can anticipate where to position themselves to make the tackle. Thus they will be in place to finish the block every time, almost as if they are reading the returner's mind.

No two finish situations are exactly the same. The players must be able to make sound decisions based on the situation. Each situation takes a slightly different approach to the finish depending on the best method to keep the cover man off the receiver. There are different finish block types for different scenarios.

INSIDE-HAND FIT AND FINISH - When in a great trail position 5 to 10 yards from the ball carrier, punch the coverage man's inside number and then establish a two-hand fit. Keep your base up and climb, hitting the cover man in the upper body, and pushing him off his lane.

INSIDE-HAND SIDE FIT AND FINISH - When in a great trail position 5 to 10 yards from the ball carrier but unable to get your hand in front of the cover man due to his body position, punch his shoulder-pad side to establish the two-hand fit in front of him inside his framework. Keep your base up and climb (block upward). Refrain from putting your hand on his back.

HIP FINISH - When in a deeper trail position 2 to 6 yards from the returner, put your hands up or through and work into the cover man with your hips and legs. Be sure you get your hands up or through (see picture). Use your hips to press the cover man, similar to a box out in basketball. Be physical to ensure you don't get pushed back into the ball carrier.



MIDPOINT FINISH - When the cover man is farther out in front of you, locate and run to the mid point between him and the returner, the proverbial 'heading him off at the pass'. Recognizing when the return man starts coming down the field and calculating the angle of the block on the coverage player. Finish the block according to the cover man's relationship to the ball carrier.

WALL FINISH - Use the Wall finish when forcing a punt and work back into position for a late block. Take a mental picture of the return and the coverage threats. Establish an angle to get between the cover man and the returner's anticipated angle. Then block the cover man using the best technique for the situation.

KNOCKOUT FINISH - The knockout finish occurs when the stars are in alignment. You know exactly what to do. This is the big hit that draws the oohs and aahs from the crowd and creates snot bubbles on the victim. Go for the big hit when you are looking at the coverage guy's ear-hole instead of his eyes and you can make legal contact.

RETRACE AND CLIMB FINISH - The ability to finish blocks depends on opening up your vision. Learning to locate both the cover man and the returner at the same time is the key to this. Once you see both players, it becomes obvious which path the cover man will take. You can see where the ball carrier is and how fast he is going when he catches the punt. The tendency here is to overshoot the cover man. You must anticipate his change in pursuit angle, especially when he is 10 yards or more from the return man. The goal is to stay between your man and the returner's path. This is called retracing your steps and climbing your man.

All of these techniques for blocking players on the punt coverage team give the return players an edge. These techniques demand maximum effort and concentration. It is also important for players not to get tunnel-vision on technique and lose sight of the bigger defensive picture. Keeping in mind that this is essentially a defensive play. The opponent has possession of the ball and is certainly entitled to and capable of advancing the ball and gaining a first down on the play, so the defensive stance must be established first. This will prevent the opponent from executing a successful fake punt.

Special Teams Unit's should adopt the motto, "Superior effort combined with solid self-discipline creates success!"

Before I end, I want to talk about the Broncos Return situation. Eddie Royal had the majority of the snaps as the Return man. He did a very good job as the Punt Returner. He had 23 PR's and made 13 Fair Catches. Looking over the Fair Catch stats for all Punt Returners, the average was around half as many Fair Catches as Returns. It sure seemed like he made a lot more Fair Catches, but as I looked at them, there were only 2 or 3 that I could put my finger on, that couldn't be attributed to the short end of the field. (Protecting against a downed punt inside the 10). Since the game coverage rarely shows enough of a picture, it is tough to get an absolute analysis on the coverage or blocking on a Punt Return. Unless one has access to an organizations film room, you will not see enough of the big picture. That makes it difficult to state whether a Fair Catch was made because of the punters Hang Time, or the coverage unit. Eddie averaged 11.2 yards per PR and ran one back 93 yards for a TD against San Diego in week 6. DeSean Jackson of the Eagles had the best average at 15.3. And the Cowboys Patrick Crayton and DeSean had 2 TD's each. As far as I can see, Eddie was up around the top 5 Punt Returners last season.The Put Return Unit as a whole, ranked 11th in the league with an average of 9.5 yards per return, which tells me that the blocking was consistent. Alphonso Smith and Kenny McKinley were also tried as Returners, but Josh McDaniels lost confidence in the Phonz after some rookie mistakes.

The issue of Royal being utilized as a Return man and a Wide Receiver is a valid one. Some think he should stick to one or the other and I agree to an extent. It would be of benefit to him if someone like Kenny McKinley, Alphonso Smith, or J.J. Arrington could take over the Return duties, especially on the kickoffs. Perhaps the Phonz will be back there this season, or perhaps the McX team will draft a talent for this position. A couple names to look for as a return man are Dez Bryant, Pat Haden, Dexter McCluster, and Trindon Holliday. Either way, there is room for improvement on this side of the ball. The PR Unit wasn't bad last year, but there will be new personnel anyway. Peyton Hillis is gone and Nathan Jones will be a new member of the squad. Let's hope this area sees improvement this year. It could make the difference in 2 to 3 games.

Go Broncos!

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR.