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 at an explosion in the kickoff return game, a huge, blocked punt for a touchdown, and a tip our cap to the top performers.
Vikings Rookie Strikes Again
The Vikings have a possible special teams star on their hand in rookie RB Kene Nwangwu. On Sunday, the explosive player took his second kickoff return to the house for a Vikings Special Teams unit that has helped keep their team in the playoff hunt.
With the 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowski kicking off late in the 3rd Quarter, the Vikings decided to run a “Double Double 35” sideline return once again, similar to that of the KR TD against Baltimore. However, this return appeared to be a “Sideline Check with Me,” as Nwangwu throws his right arm out to the side to signal the direction of the return as the ball is in the air.
The return side guard and tackle doubled the #3 to the return, while the middle rover and return side rover doubled the return side #5. These successful doubles teams at the point along with the efficient wall on the backside, allowed maneuvering space for the speedy return man. To the front side, #25 Mattison and #30 CJ Ham secured the play side safety and edge player to create the lane for Nwangwu to run through.
At this juncture, all the rookie returners had to do was use his speed to beat the Niners backside safety #3 Tartt and make Wishnowski miss. Nwangwu’s success as a returner can be correlated to the drafting efforts of the Vikings. When looking at the use of HS track times in the evaluation of prospects, Kene stands out. In terms of NFL Draft grades from Tracking Football on his track times, he is in the top 1% on his high jump and long jump as well as the top 5% in his 100m. His triple jump was in the top 25% with his 200m being in the top 30%. Speed in the return game can change this play from a good return (being tracked down by the backside safety), to an explosive game-altering TD.
Thanksgiving Day Feast
In the most watched regular season football game in the history of the NFL, the Cowboys exploded on special teams with the help of Memphis RB Tony Pollard. With 7:00 minutes to go in the 3rd Quarter, Pollard lined up on the goal line to receive the Carlson kick.
With the score 24-13, Dallas called for a middle bounce scheme in which Pollard received the kick and started up the right side. About 10 yards into his return, he sticks his foot in the ground and bounces to the left to break the contain of the Raiders’ kickoff coverage. The Raiders fall victim to a very common mistake on the coverage side as they lost leverage on the right side with #25 and #21 Amik Robertson. Pollard circled the coverage and took the kick back 100 yards for a Cowboy Touchdown.
On this scheme, Dallas decides to Double Team the kick side #5 and Double the Return side #4. In addition, the Cowboys were able to take an element of the #5 double team to circle back around to the return side and block the return side safety, #24 Abram of the Raiders. This return allowed Dallas to stay in the game and provide the record audience with one of the year’s Fantastic Finishes.
Miami Block Party
The Miami Dolphins got off to a HOT start against the Carolina Panthers as the BLOCK PARTY made its way down to South Beach. Early in the first quarter, the Panthers lined up to punt from their own 9-yard line as the Dolphins used this field position to their advantage.
Coach Crossman used a late “Corner Roll” to bait the left slot of Carolina #30 Hubbard to jump out on his blocking assignment which allowed #45 Duke Riley to block the punt for a Dolphin recovery and early touchdown to help propel them to victory. (See Diagram)
Washington Joins the Block Party
In Washington we saw a play that we have not seen yet so far this season, the elusive blocked XP returned for 2 points. With about 1 minute left before half, the WFT lined up to kick the XP. The Seahawks rushed the left side C gap between the LE and the LT with number #94 on the Seahawks defense, Rasheem Green making the block. Not only was he able to block the kick, but he proceeded to scoop the ball and score with great assistance in blocking on the return.
The issues on the WFT OL stemmed from the play of LT Ereck Flowers, as he did not secure the outside gap due to high pad level. Paired with poor technique from the LE Cornelius Lucas, the left side C gap hole emerged. The end on that side did not properly execute the 2-step technique in which he would step with his inside foot in the C gap and hinge with this outside foot backwards sealing off the D gap. The lack of interior seal from Flowers and Lucas allowed for Green to exploit it and create a rarely seen 2-point return.
Kotwica’s Clutch Kicks (Turkey Day Magic)
Credit to Bears K Cairo Santos
- Late in the 4th quarter, after the Bears drove down the field on the Lions, they lined up for a 28-yard chip shot. Santos was able to help the Bears avoid the upset against the winless Lions as he was able to convert for the 16-14 win.
Credit to Raiders K Daniel Carlson
- Carlson faced adversity towards the end of OT as a rash of penalties and stoppages allowed him to hit a 29-yard FG to win 36-33 over the Cowboys. The Cowboys called a Timeout to “ice” Carlson followed by an offsides on the Raiders to set him back 5 yards. With the kick finally going off, the Cowboys were called for back-to-back neutral zone infractions. Seemingly intentionally, these neutral zone infractions did not rattle the kicker. Carlson showed mental toughness in his ability to keep focus and nail the game winning kick.