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Ben Kotwica's Special Teams Report: Week 1

Having worked in the NFL for 15 years as a special teams assistant and coordinator, each week I will discuss a few impactful moments from the kicking, punting or return game. Often special teams can be overlooked, but the critical nature of a reliable and effective special teams unit cannot be overstated.

This week, we will take a closer look into a game-changing play of the week, update news from the special teams realm and tip our cap to the top performers of the week.

Game-Changing Special Teams Moment of the Week

This week, two of the top regular-season teams from a year ago met in Buffalo. The start to the Bills-Steelers game was a “punt fest” with the Steelers punting on five of their first six first-half possessions. They couldn’t sustain a drive longer than six plays, including two three-and-outs in the first half. With the Steelers lack of offense, the Bills took a 10-0 lead going into the intermission. As the Steelers got back into the game in the second half, they approached the pivotal moment of discussion. The Bills faced a fourth-and-12 after Josh Allen was sacked; the Bills lined up to punt from the their own 23. Danny Smith, the veteran special teams coordinator for the Steelers, saw the opportunity to make a play.

Often, the opportunity to make an aggressive punt block call will come after a QB sack, as it will usually be fourth-and-5 or more, which negates the ability for the punting team to pick up a first down if a running-into-the-kicker penalty is called. While the 15-yard roughing the kicker penalty is still in play, the risk is mitigated with the Bills in fourth-and-12. Smith, clearly saw this an opportunity to attack.

The veteran ST coordinator called for a block with an 8-man structure in the box. His means of attack was with a 3-5 surface which forced the personal protector to slide his snapper to the 5-man surface. With this knowledge, Smith executed a double-wrap block concept. He used the defender closest to the snapper on the 3-man side to “Pick” the snapper’s hip while wrapping

two defenders from the alignments strength. This scheme caused confusion between the Bills’ weak side guard and personal protector.

Veteran special teams ace Miles Killebrew perfectly executed the “Snapper Pick” and became the free runner to block the punt and inevitably seal the victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1.

Surprising Personnel Decision

Last week, we talked about the Panthers choosing to go with Ryan Santoso over Joey Slye. In Week 1, Santoso missed one XP but went perfect on his field goals. After the game, Santoso was released as the Panthers made another change at the position by bringing in journeyman Zane Gonzales. This was a surprisingly short leash for Santoso, a player that the organization traded for a mere two weeks ago.

Kotwica’s Clutch Kicks

Credit to Bengals kicker Evan McPherson and Vikings kicker Greg Joseph

  • At the end of regulation last Sunday, Joseph, in his first FG attempt with the Vikings, struck a 53-yard FG to tie the game and send it to OT. In OT, as time expired in the extra period, the rookie out of Florida, McPherson, hit a 38-yard FG to win the game for the Bengals. This was only their third win in their last nine games and their first with QB Joe Burrow back from a knee injury suffered in 2020.

Credit to Ravens K Justin Tucker and Raiders K Daniel Carlson

  • What a battle between the Raiders and the Ravens in the desert as Monday night was turning to Tuesday morning on the East Coast. With 37 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, Justin Tucker, lined up for a 47-yard FG, which he hit. However, the Raiders responded by driving the ball into field-goal range for Daniel Carlson who took advantage of the opportunity to hit a 55-yard FG, the longest of his NFL career, to tie the game and send it to OT. A game in which the Raiders eventually won.

Credit to Buccaneers P Bradley Pinion

  • Pinion opened the 2021 season on a major high, booming a 65-yard punt that went out of bounds at the 2-yard line, placing the Cowboys deep in their own territory for their first drive of the season.

Credit to Jets K Matt Ammendola

  • The Jets kicker replaced second-year punter Bradley Mann, who went out with an injury in the first quarter. Ammendola, the kicker, struck his first punt 65 yards. He had six total punts on the day, totaling 48.5 yards per punt with two landing inside the 20. He attempted no FGs or PATs as the Jets went for a 2-point conversion on both tries.