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 the momentum swings, big plays of the week, tip our cap to the top performers and the historical weekend of placekickers.
Carolina vs Philadelphia
At Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers held an 18-13 lead over the Philadelphia Eagles with just over 4 minutes to play. With Carolina in control of the tempo and play most of the day, a game-changing, game-winning play was made in the Special Forces phase of the game. On a 4th and 3 from their own 46 yard line, the Panthers set up in punt formation. The Eagles matched this set with an 8-man box structure with 4 on the left and 4 on the right. Philly decided to widen out number 1, 2 and 3 to each side, forcing the Panthers guard, tackle, and wing to widen the interior gaps, specifically the A gap away from the snapper slide. The Panthers executed what is commonly known as an inside pick to exploit this gap. Shaun Bradley, the second year LB out of Temple, picked the hip of the long snapper JJ Jansen, which allowed T.J Edwards to wrap from the opposite side to block the punt. Edwards did a great job of coming tight around the corner and stuck his left hand out to block the punt off Joseph Charlton’s foot. Bradley ended up recovering the block for the Eagles and set the table for their offense at the Carolina 27 yard line. Four plays later, Jalen Hurts rushed for a 6-yard touchdown which ended up being the game-winning score.
Houston vs New England
The next momentum-shifting play occurred in Houston with the Texans in complete control over the Patriots up 22-9. The Houston punter Cameron Johnston lined up from the 36 yard-line with about 10 minutes to go in the third quarter on a fourth-and-short. The Texans seemingly tried to get a bit fancy with the deception of a formational shift. Initially, the Texans lined up in their traditional punt formation before breaking the set by bringing the punter up under center. New England seemed ready for a fake attempt as they maintained an 8-man box structure with multiple stand-up backers. This defensive alignment forced Houston to call off their fake and re-establish a semblance of their regular punt formation. Unfortunately, as they reconstituted their punt formation, Johnston, who would usually set up 14-15 yards behind the ball, only dropped back to a depth of 10 yards. The Patriots were able to get inside pressure out of a bear front. And the pressure up the middle pushed the Houston PP, Terrence Brooks back into the trajectory of the punt. The punt netted a total of zero yards as the Patriots gained possession and momentum. After this pivotal special teams play, the Patriots went on a 16-0 run to pull off the victory over the Houston Texans.
Big Play of the Week
The most discussed special teams play of the week and perhaps the year, occurred on Thursday Night with the Seattle Seahawks hosting the LA Rams. In the 3rd quarter with about 3 minutes to go, the Seahawks lined up for a punt at the 21-yard line on a 4th and 14. The Seahawks were leading the game 16-7 with punter Michael Dickson stationed at the 7-yard line. The Rams were set in a standard 7-man box return with 3 down on each side of the snapper and a stand-up backer to spy on the personal protector. The Seahawk right guard cut newly acquired Jamir Jones free as Jones ran through and blocked the punt. Michael Dickson was able to regain possession of the football and get another punt off. This play and the ruling for the officials befuddled many, but they made the correct ruling was eventually made as Dickson got off a 68-yard net punt to the Rams 11-yard line. Interestingly, Dickson’s background in Australian rules football came in handy as he demonstrated the skill and ability to scoop up the rolling ball and perform an Australian rules style punt to force the Rams to regain possession deep in their own end.
This week in football, placekickers missed at a historic rate from all over the field. There were double digit XPs and FGs missed this week for the first time since the NFL moved the XP attempt back 13 yards in 2015. Likewise, 13 XPs missed is the single most missed in one week in the Super Bowl Era. With 12 FGs missed (5 in GB vs CIN alone), the total of 25 missed kicks is the most in a week since Week 11 of 1987. After this week, the discussion will be that kickers are missing more FGs and XPs this season than any season since the rule change. However, it is important to put some context behind this fact. Below is the rate at which XPs have been made through five weeks since the rule game in 2015
The criticism on the missed XPs is fair as the 92.15% is actually the lowest success rate since 1979 when the XPs were at the 2-yard line. The discussion on the FGs missed needs to be contextualized. Yes, FGs are being missed more frequently recently, but going back the last ten years, the 61 FGs attempted from 50-plus yards in 2021 through Week 5 is the by far the highest rate. This is a 15.1% increase on 50-plus-yard FGs attempted over the second highest in that ten-year range (2020). It will be interesting to watch over the coming weeks if Week 5 of the 2021 season is a mere snapshot in time, or a systemic issue to be tracked accordingly as the season rolls along.
Kotwica’s Clutch Kicks
Credit to Vikings K Greg Joseph
- Joseph hit a 54-yard kick with 3 seconds left on the clock to beat the Detroit Lions. The Lions had taken a 17-16 lead with 41 seconds left, but Minnesota was able to march down the field and set up Joseph for a chance. He made the kick, and the Vikings won their second game of the season.
Credit to Packers K Mason Crosby
- Despite missing 3 prior FGs (4 of 7) in total, Crosby was able to hit a 49-yard FG to win the game towards the end of overtime. Cincinnati is not the easiest place to kick, and the two kickers totaled for 5 missed FGs and 1 missed XP.
Credit to Patriots K Nick Folk
- Folk missed a 56-yard FG with 59 seconds left off of the upright last week against the Patriots. The kick was placed in the wind and rain in New England. He came back this past week to hit a 21-yard kick for a Patriots win over the Texans.