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Historical Weekend: Ben Kotwica's Special Teams Report

Having worked in the NFL for 15 years in the special teams realm, each week Ben Kotwica will discuss the most 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 momentum swing, historic plays and tip our cap to the top performers of the week.

Uncapitalized Opportunity

New England Patriots punter Jake Bailey had the first punt block of his career occur last weekend against New Orleans. This is the first punt block against the Patriots since Dec. 6, 2015, when they played the Philadelphia Eagles at home. On fourth-and-4 from the 50-yard line in the second quarter, with New Orleans up 7-0, Saints special teamer Andrew Dowell rushed from the punt team’s left side. Interestingly, this was not a designed rush for Dowell as he beat the New England wing on a common punt rush technique known as the “Up & Under.” The Patriots wing in this situation gained too much depth and width in his set, which allowed Dowell to rip through the wing’s inside shoulder off his third step. Dowell’s sudden and aggressive move looked to catch the Patriot wing off guard and provided the Saints with a big momentum-changing special teams play for their team. Unfortunately for New Orleans, even though they took over in New England territory, the Saints were unable to capitalize as kicker Aldrick Rosas missed a 36-yard field goal.

Historic Play

In a 7-7 game, with two seconds left in the second quarter, the Arizona Cardinals trotted out kicker Matt Prater for what would have been an NFL-record 68-yard field goal attempt against the Jaguars. When attempting a field goal in this situation, a special teams coordinator must assess multiple factors involving risk and reward value – and this decision-making process takes place in a VERY short period of time. What must be considered: 1. What are the current weather conditions? In this case there was between 5-10 m.p.h. wind, which is considered light. 2. What is the risk/reward? In this case, the reward was a halftime lead (10-7) with the Cardinals having the opportunity to score back-to-back as they were scheduled to receive the second-half kickoff. The risk is attempting the longest FG in NFL history with Prater. It is of note that prior to Justin Tucker's history-making 66-yard field goal this weekend, Prater did have the longest FG on record (64 yards). However, that 64-yard FG occurred in the high altitude of Denver in 2013 against the Titans. This was eight years later in Prater's career, without the high altitude help, and was a longer attempt. The other main risk is the Jaguars’ ability to return a missed kick -- and in this case with arguably the most dangerous returner in the NFL right now, Jamal Agnew, who returned a kickoff for a TD in Week 1.

What Jacksonville did on this return was remove a player from the field-goal block unit to add the explosive returner, Agnew. With Agnew back to return the kick (if short), the coordinator had called a common return for this situation, a field goal bench return. This return is called specifically in this situation. On this return, after the defensive team attempts to block the kick and the ball is away, the block team establishes a “Wall” toward their own bench. The return is typically called to the block team’s bench in the hopes that if a possible blindside block or penalty occurs during the return, near their sideline, there is an opportunity to influence the officials if a subjective call to the wall side may occur. Jacksonville continued to create a wall return for Agnew, who brought the kick back for a 109-yard score, tying Antonio Cromartie's 109-yard FG return touchdown when he was with the Chargers.

While the Cardinals clearly had a “Cover Call” on for their field goal team, they were at an extreme disadvantage on this return because six of their players on the field were offensive linemen with so much space to be covered.

Kotwica’s Clutch Kicks

Credit to Ravens K Justin Tucker

  • At the end of regulation Sunday, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, Justin Tucker, added another record to his name, hitting a 66-yard field goal, the longest in NFL history.

Credit to Falcons K Younghoe Koo

  • Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo beat the Giants with a 40-yard kick with 3 seconds left in the game. Having spent time as the ST coordinator with Koo as my kicker, he has done a phenomenal job and has become one of the best kickers in the NFL. He is 41 of 43 on FGs since the start of 2020, including 8 of 8 from 50-plus yards. In 2019, when he started with the Falcons, he was an improving player. I felt his real breakout game occurred against Tampa Bay in 2019. It was the last game of the season and Koo went 5 of 5, including a kick that sent the game into OT.

Credit to Patriots K Nick Folk

  • The revival of Nick Folk’s career has been fascinating to watch. After being let go by the Jets and the Buccaneers, he took the 2018 season off. In 2019, he signed with the Patriots after Stephen Gostkowski's injury. After finishing the 2019 season with New England, they chose to go with him over Gostkowski in 2020. Since the start of 2020, Folk has gone 35 of 37 while hitting his last 35 straight FGs. Not only is this streak impressive, but kicking in New England and in the Northeast in general is much harder than other areas of the country. It includes kicking in cold weather, outdoors and in hostile environments such as Buffalo and New York.

Credit to Packers K Mason Crosby

  • Mason Crosby hit a game-winning kick at the end of regulation on Sunday night to push the Packers to 2-1. After the game, everyone was talking about Aaron Rodgers marching down the field with 37 seconds left, but if Crosby did not hit a 51-yard FG, none of that would be discussed. Tip of the cap to the underappreciated Crosby in this situation.

Just When You Think You’ve Seen It All

Something occurred on Sunday that I do not think I’ve ever seen in the special teams realm, and it is not Tucker’s record-setting kick. It occurred in the Washington-Buffalo. If you have ever been to Buffalo, you know it can be a tough place to win and be efficient in. The wind can be swirling, as was especially true on Sunday. There were 20-25 m.p.h. winds as the second quarter began. Buffalo was up 21-0 before Washington scored to make it 21-7. On the ensuing kickoff, Dustin Hopkins (who we highlighted last week in the Clutch Kicks section), struck a version of a “mortar” kick. The ball was kicked to the right side, into the wind as the Bills were aligned with one deep and two ends at the 20-yard line. The ball was high-arching and landed at the 15-yard line. When it hit, the backspin or ball’s rotation allowed it to spin back to the 21-yard line, where Hopkins recovered the kick himself! Three offense plays later, the Football Team scored to make it 21-14. A kicker recovering his own kick is a dream situation for the player, and a play that makes this phase of the game interesting, exciting and very influential to the game’s outcome.