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Ben Kotwica’s Special Teams Report: Onside Kicks Are Officially Back

Ben Kotwica’s Special Teams Report: Onside Kicks Are Officially Back

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 year’s most successful onside kick weekend, the Bears dominant special teams performance and situational football.

Success of The Onside Kick

In Week 14, there were four successful onside kicks in the NFL, bringing the total up to eight on the year. This is on pace to be the highest number of onside kick recoveries in the NFL since the rule changes in 2017. Between 2018 and 2020, onside kick recoveries only reached a high of 12.9% in 2019 (eight out of 62) and sunk to a low in this range of 4.5% last season. As of this writing in 2021, 18.6% of attempted onside kicks have been recovered, making special teams plays even more interesting down the stretch.

Last week, we saw onside kicks recovered by the Giants, Cardinals, Ravens, and the Bears. The Ravens, in a game in which they ultimately lost, recovered their first onside kick with former special teams coordinator John Harbaugh calling the shot. In Green Bay, the Packers special teams struggled as the Bears recovered an onside kick in Lambeau, where rookie RB Khalil Herbert snatched the ball along the sideline off the hands of MVS. On Monday Night Football, the Cardinals found onside kicks success as they were able to secure their first onside recovery since 2008. Add the New York Giants to the mix against the LA Chargers and you had a weekend full of examples as to how important special teams, and specifically the onside kick, will be as teams hunt for coveted playoff spots. 

Chicago Bears Dominant Special Teams Performance

The Chicago Bears flexed their special teams muscle with a dominant performance on that side of the ball on Sunday Night against the NFC-leading Green Bay Packers.

In the first half, the Bears: returned a kickoff for 40 yards (leading to a Bears’ touchdown); produced another 41-yard kick return (leading to a Santos field goal); added a 34-yard punt return (leading to a Chicago field goal); and had a 97-yard punt return for TD by the speedy Jakeem Grant.

The Bears also forced the Packers to kick the ball out of bounds after a defensive touchdown in the second quarter, which allowed them to start their drive at the 40-yard line. 

In the second half, Chicago pressure forced a 22-yard FG miss, and finally they recovered an onside kick in the waning moments of the 4th quarter to have a shot at continuing the comeback. This strong performance allowed Chicago to stay in the game for 4 quarters with the NFC’s best team.

Situational Football

Every week, we touch on the importance of situational football, special teams being a great example of it. This past week, situational football was prevalent in the Bengals and 49ers game. It started in the 1st quarter as Cincinnati was able to hold the 49ers on one of the first drives of the game.

The 49ers and punter Mitch Wishnowsky went back to punt, delivering the ball to Darius Phillips. The return man muffed the punt, which 49er River Cracraft fell on, setting up a 33-yard FG by Robbie Gould to take the open lead.

Midway through the second quarter, the Bengals defense once again did their job by forcing a 3-and-out by the 49ers offense as the punter trotted onto the field. Once again, Phillips was unable to catch the punt, which was recovered this time by San Francisco's Trent Sherfield. This set up a 14-yard connection from Jimmy Garoppolo to George Kittle with 25 seconds left in the first half, and gave the 49ers a large 17-3 lead. This is a lead they did not squander, as the Niners ultimately got a pivotal win on the road to keep their playoff hopes alive.