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Ben Kotwica's Special Teams Report: Week 2

Having worked in the NFL for 15 years in the special team’s realm, each week we will discuss the most impactful moments from in 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 at complementary football, update news from the ST realm and tip our cap to the top performers of the week…

Complementary football

NFL coaches often talk about complementary football being a major factor in winning or losing games. A great example of this took place last week in Tampa, with the Bucs hosting the Atlanta Falcons. With Tampa Bay leading 28-25, two big punts occurred that influenced the outcome of the game. The first occurred with 13:15 left in the fourth quarter, when Buccaneers punter Bradley Pinion pinned the Falcons inside their 5-yard line, striking a 57-yard punt to the 4. The Falcons quickly went three-and-out, gaining just six net yards and being forced to punt on fourth-and-4 from their own 10.

Here's where the second big punt occurred. Falcons rookie punter Cameron Nizialek hit a 33-yard punt that went out of bounds and the Buccaneers took over on the Atlanta 43. Atlanta gave the Buccaneers great field position to start this drive – and that’s when the game's floodgates opened. The Buccaneers made quick work of this drive, scoring on three plays that culminated with a 12-yard touchdown to Chris Godwin. With momentum clearly in their favor and the home crowd getting into the game, the Bucs’ defense intercepted a Matt Ryan pass to extend their lead to 41-25. This sequence is a great example of how complementary football can change an expected outcome quickly. It all started with the special teams for Tampa pinning the Falcons at their 4-yard line.

Overcoming possible game-changing plays

When given the opportunities to make game-changing plays on special teams, NFL teams really want to capitalize and use these plays as launch points to create momentum and ultimately win the game. In the Jaguars-Broncos game, Denver led 23-7 with 5:30 left in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars got one of those explosive, game-changing plays in the form of a big kick return for a touchdown from Jamal Agnew (102 yards). Since 2000, the winning percentage of a team with a kick return for a touchdown is 54.94%. Ultimately, this kickoff return for a touchdown occurred in a blowout, with only five minutes left in the fourth and the Jaguars down by 16. Jacksonville failed on a 2-point conversion try, so the lead was still 10.

Similarly, in the Rams-Colts game, Indianapolis took a miscue from the Rams‘ punt team and turned it into seven points. On this play, the personal protector appeared to lose his situation awareness on the road, late in the game in a hostile environment, and he ended up getting in the way of the snap. It seems as though the rush look from the Indianapolis punt return team made him move to his left and eventually the snap hit off his hip, causing a fumble that the Colts scooped and scored on. A key note on this play is how the environment of the crowd during this play can affect the protection call for the punt team. For the Rams, they are playing an away game, in a dome, with fans back in Indianapolis for the first time in over a year for the home opener. However, credit Rams head coach Sean McVay and his staff for maintaining the team’s poise and responding with a 4-play, 70-yard drive to score the go-ahead touchdown. If McVay’s team can consistently display this type of resilience and grit, they will be a tough out down the road.

Kotwica’s Clutch Kicks

Credit to Football Team K Dustin Hopkins

At the end of regulation last Thursday, Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins, on his second attempt at the game-winning kick, hit a 43-yard FG to win the game for the WFT. On the first attempt, Hopkins missed, but Giants lineman Dexter Lawrence narrowly jumped offside, giving Hopkins another try to win the game. While Hopkins has received his share of criticism over the last year, his ability to regroup and focus was instrumental in the Washington victory and will serve him well as the season moves along.

Credit to Titans K Randy Bullock

Titans kicker Randy Bullock, who was just signed off waivers last week, hit a 36-yard FG in OT to beat the Seahawks. The Titans are hoping Bullock can be the consistent kicker they have desperately sought over the last year. His value will be critical to Tennessee’s success, as they have struggled so far this season at scoring in the red zone.

Credit to Cowboys K Greg Zuerlein

After missing two FGs in Week 1, Greg Zuerlein hit one of the biggest kicks of the year, a 56-yard FG as time expired to give the Cowboys the victory over the chargers and keep them from falling to 0-2 on the season. The Cowboys will need Zuerlein to be consistent throughout the season as they have playoff aspirations and will certainly find themselves in their share of one-score games.