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Ben Kotwica's Special Teams Report: Stolen Momentum, Missed Opportunity

Special Teams Report: Stolen Momentum

Having worked in the NFL for 15 years in the special teams 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 into a momentum swing, recognized opportunities, and tip our cap to the top performers of the week.

Stolen Momentum

On Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons went into halftime with a 17-13 lead over the Washington Football Team as they closed out the first half with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to take the lead. However, this momentum evaporated quickly as the Washington Football Team responded with an explosive special teams play. Shortly after Atlanta’s kicker Cameron Nizialek put foot to leather to start the second half, Washington's return-man DeAndre Carter and his special teams unit executed a middle return that stole the momentum away from Atlanta. The journeyman returner Carter — on his 7th NFL team — took the kick back 101 yards for a touchdown. The touchdown gave Washington a 19-17 lead and showed the importance of single blocking on special teams in the kickoff return game. Credit veteran ST Coordinator Nate Kaczor for having his team ready to execute single blocking, which can be one of the most difficult tasks a player can be asked to do in the special teams phase. On this particular play, LB and ST veteran David Mayo, rookie TE John Bates and second year LB Khaleke Hudson all executed the single-blocking technique perfectly. They not only prevented their defender from making the play, but also created seams for the dynamic returner. Aided by a missed tackle by Falcons rookie safety Richie Grant, these well sustained blocks allowed Carter to take the kick back for a momentum-changing TD and ultimately provided a pivotal big play to help Washington get the win.

Opportunity Recognized

Many who saw the play on Monday night in which Raiders WR Hunter Renfrow — as the return man — broke up the pass from the punter to the gunner described it has a “Fake Punt.” However, after a closer examination of other factors that influenced this play, it is clear that the Chargers saw the situation as an opportunity to accept risk for a great reward. The play occurred in the 2nd quarter with 2:03 left in SoFi Stadium on 4th-and-12 from the LV 41. The disconnect here between public perception and reality is the Chargers were in punt formation, and their intent was to punt the ball away.  However, the punt team recognized that the Raiders only had 10 men on the field with the gunner away from the Raiders bench uncovered. With an eligible, uncovered receiver away from the Raiders bench, it appeared to go unnoticed by the visiting team as they made no attempt to run a defender onto the field or cover up the gunner.  At that moment, the Chargers exploited the oversight and took a calculated risk. The punter for the Chargers, Ty Long, saw the uncovered gunner to his bench, took the snap and passed the ball out to the gunner, Tevaughn Campbell on 4th-and-12. While Campbell was wide open for the reception, it was the instinctual play of Renfrow that saved the day for the Vegas team, breaking up the sure reception. To watch Renfrow run up from his return position 40 yards down field to break up this pass was surely one of the incredible special teams plays of Week 4.  

Turning Point?

On Sunday night, in a game dubbed as “The Return," one of the most crucial plays of the contest came on a punt and punt return in the 3rd quarter with 7:45 left in a hard fought, defensive 7-6 battle (Patriots winning). Jake Bailey lined up to punt from his own 12-yard line and hit a 59-yard punt to the Buccaneers’ dangerous return man Jayden Mickens. The Patriots seemingly created an “explosive” play on the back of All-Pro ST player Matthew Slater. Slater, seemingly used his experience, speed and explosiveness to win against the Double Vice on the perimeter and force a fumble on the returner Mickens. This fumble was recovered by Patriots’ cornerback J.C. Jackson, which resulted in pandemonium in Foxborough and a HUGE play for New England. However, this play was negated due to the fact that Slater did not attempt to make an effort to reestablish himself back in bounds after he was forced out of by the Tampa Bay double vice. New England was forced to deliver the ball again and lost a key turnover opportunity which could have tremendously impacted the game.

These examples and the others surely to come as the NFL season roll along, paint a clear picture of not only the tremendous impact that special teams has on this great game, but the necessity for a clear and concise explanation as to what happened and why. The ability for viewers and fans to grasp the importance of special teams plays and the how and why they occur cannot be overstated.

Kotwica’s Clutch Kicks

Credit to Bengals K Evan McPherson

  • After missing from wide left from 43 earlier in the game, Bengals K Evan McPherson hit a 35-yard FG to win the game as time expired for Cincinnati’s 3rd win of the season

Credit to Falcons K Younghoe Koo

  • The Falcons P Cameron Nizialek was injured in the third quarter of their game against the Football Team. K Younghoe Koo took over the punting duties admirably, averaging 35 yards per punt and still going 1 for 1 on his FGs and 3 for 3 on XPs

As The Kicking Carousel Spins

As mentioned in our preseason article, there were some teams with kicking challenges to come. There has been some turnover this week in the kicking world as Aldrick Rosas was released from the Saints, who signed Cody Parkey. Rosas was wide right on a 58-yard attempt this past week for his 3rd miss of the season, while only making one in that time. Randy Bullock missed a costly kick that would’ve made it a tie game in OT  from 49 yards. Changes could be made in Tennessee if Bullock’s struggles continue. The Titans started the season with Michael Badgley before cutting him after Week 1. Badgley has been passed around so far this season. Initially with Cincinnati prior to the season, and the Titans to start the season, he found himself most recently in SF for a tryout. Ultimately, with the injury to 49ers K Robbie Gould, they signed Joey Slye, who was on the Panthers prior to start the season before briefly kicking for the Texans this season. When Ka'imi Fairbairn returned from injury for the Texans, Slye was cut. Much respect to the life of a kicker in the National Football League.