Having worked in the NFL for 15 years in the special teams realm as an assistant and as a Coordinator, each week we will discuss the most impactful moments from the kicking game. While special teams can be overlooked at times, the critical nature of a reliable and effective special teams unit cannot be overstated.
This week, we will take a closer look at the week’s impactful plays and tip our cap to the top performers.
Vikings Special Teams Unit Keeps Them in Game
At the start of the second half, the Ravens kicked off to the Vikings return man, rookie RB Kene Nwangwu out of Iowa State. The rookie took the ball from the 2 yard line and down the right sideline for one of the week’s most explosive plays. The Vikings ran a double double scheme, where they used 2 blockers to eliminate the Ravens right #4 and 2 blockers to take care of the Ravens right #3.
Not only did Minnesota win at the decisive point of the return, more importantly they were able to cut off Baltimore’s backside pursuit to the ball. The effectiveness of the backside wall, ability to win at the point, and missed tackle by a Raven defender allowed the 210-pound RB with 4.29 speed to go untouched to the end zone for a touchdown and one of the week’s most explosive special teams plays.
In addition to the kickoff return for a touchdown, on 4th and 2 from their own 33 yard line Minnesota executed a fake punt around the right side of the Ravens punt return unit. With a 7-point lead in the 3rd quarter, the Vikings lined up to punt the ball against the Ravens 8 box punt safe structure. Baltimore aligned with 6 players (3 on each side) and 2 stand-up Safeties (a standard, safe look).
The ball was snapped directly to the personal protector (Josh Metellus) who gave the ball to the left-wing RB Kene Nwangwu on an inside handoff around the right end. Led by the pulling punt team left guard, CJ Ham, Minnesota was able to capture the edge and gain 7 yards — enough for a Vikings first down.
Close examination of the film will show the snapper with a slight tilt toward the offset personal protector. A very slight but helpful tell as to what the Minnesota’s intent was on that play.
On the punt return side, Baltimore tried to cancel the interior gaps on the rush with the standup safeties covering the wings. While the Ravens right edge rusher was able to get the run to bubble, he did allow the ball carrier to get outside around the end. Baltimore safety Geno Stone missed the tackle and allowed Nwangwu to get enough yardage for the first down.
The Block Party Returns
For the second time in 3 weeks, Mason Crosby and the Green Bay Packers had a field goal blocked. On this specific play, Green Bay lined up for a relatively short 37-yard field goal from their left hash. With the rush coming from the field (Green Bay’s right side), Alex Okafor used the C gap swing, similarly to the technique we described a few weeks back in the Falcons vs Dolphins game, to block the kick. The Packers’ right end failed to secure his inside C gap with a fundamentally sound “Step-Hinge” technique and allowed Okafor to penetrate the gap and block the kick
With 12:51 to go in the 3rd quarter, Denver Broncos’ punter Sam Martin went back to punt with a 16-0 lead over the host Dallas Cowboys. The Dallas special teams unit sets up in an 8-box rush with WR Malik Turner aligned over the ball, but far enough back to be a legal formation. Using an interior wrap rush scheme, the Broncos cut Turner free, as it appears that the Snapper and PP failed to correctly sort the Cowboy twist. Turner deflected the punt, and the ball barely crossed the line of scrimmage.
This is where the play gets interesting. As the ball crosses the line of scrimmage, Nashon Wright of the Cowboys tried unsuccessfully to catch the deflected punt. The ball bounced off his shoulder and Broncos LB Jones Griffith recovered the muff past the line of scrimmage for the Broncos, who took possession of the ball. Since a muffed punt cannot be advanced, the Broncos took over at their 19 yard line, and 10 plays later kicked a field goal to extend their lead to 19-0 and ultimately win the game.
We have spoken a lot throughout the season of the NFL Special Teams carousel that has been occurring with kickers being cut, signed, and cut again.
One of the examples we discussed in depth last week was the Washington Football Team and their kicking situation with Dustin Hopkins and Chris Blewitt. This past week, after a few poor performances, Chris Blewitt was cut by the WFT as they signed another member of the kicking carousel, Joey Slye, who will now be on his fourth team in this calendar year.
Enter this kicker market for a replacement at your own risk.
Kotwica’s Clutch Kicks
Credit to Falcons K Younghoe Koo
- Younghoe Koo hit his 3rd game-winner of the season with his last-second FG over the New Orleans Saints. Since his signing with Atlanta, Koo has become one of the most clutch kickers in the NFL and since his start in the NFL in 2019 has had the 3rd highest FG% in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or in OT, behind only Justin Tucker and Harrison Butker. Having helped bring Koo to Atlanta in November 2019, I could not be happier for this great player who is an even better person and fierce competitor.
Credit to Chargers K Dustin Hopkins
- Dustin Hopkins, as mentioned above, was cut by the WFT a few weeks ago and immediately signed with the Chargers. This past weekend in their game against the Eagles, Hopkins hit a game winning 29-yard FG with 5 seconds left to give LAC the lead in the division
Credit to Ravens K Justin Tucker
- Justin Tucker hit another game-winning field goal, because why wouldn’t he. He has never missed a FG with under 2 min left in the 4th quarter or OT. This is the best in the NFL over the span of the last 3 years. He is a future HOFer who continues to do HOF things in the ST unit each week.
Credit to Steelers K Chris Boswell
- Chris Boswell hit a 40-yard FG on 4th and 1 with 30 seconds left on the clock. The Steelers escaped with this victory after being up 20-6 at the end of the 3rd quarter. Boswell is now 15 of 16 on FGs and 14 of 15 on XPs, with his one missed FG coming in Week 3.