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 game altering plays, entering the ST carousel and tip our cap to the top performers:
Game Altering Plays
Patriots vs Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys did something Sunday afternoon they had not done since 2015 which is block a punt. On 4th-and-1 late in the 2nd quarter, the New England Patriots lined up to punt from their own 35 yard line. The Cowboys lined up in a conventional 6 down (3 on each side) and 2 up (1 each side) look where the 2 stand up players served as safeties to guard against a fake. Their responsibility was to make sure that the wings of the Patriots did not go out for a pass.
Up front, Dallas lineup with a 2-technique, tight-5, and 9-tech on each side of the ball. This look is a common play call on 4th and less than 5 yards to bring internal pressure and secure the gaps in case of a run. As the ball is snapped, the safeties wrapped around from inside out as this action prompted the Patriots to slide their line to their left. However, it appears that the safety wrap movement from inside out confused the Patriots left side, specifically their left guard. This player failed to block the final #3 coming into the B gap, #57 Luke Gifford. Gifford exploited this breakdown and went untouched through the LOS and blocked Jake Bailey’s second punt of the season.
The Cowboys scooped up the loose ball and recovered deep into the New England red zone. This play was a huge momentum catalyst for the Cowboys, as they preceded to score the game’s next 10 points and win the game.
Panthers vs Vikings
In a 12-10 game with the Vikings ahead of the Panthers, Minnesota was forced to punt from their own 24 yard line with 6:56 left in the 3rd quarter on a 4th-and-8. On this play, the Panthers not only stole the momentum, but recovered the punt block, scooped and scored for a TD.
Panthers rotational LB Frankie Luvu, who is a former New York Jets UDFA, blocked the punt. The Panthers lined up in an 8-man box structure with the block occurring from Minnesota’s left side. This alignment is what we call a “53 look” meaning there are 4 down lineman and 1 stand up on the strong side (5 in 53) and 3 on the weak side.
The Panthers ran a simple yet effective exchange between the #2 and #3 on this play from the weak side. The #2 defender wrapped around and blocked the punt while #27, Kenny Robinson, on the Panthers scooped and scored for a TD.
For the Vikings, the breakdown occurred at the RG position, as veteran #91 Stephen Weatherly failed to sort through the 2/3 twist from Carolina. The 2/3 exchange was run to perfection, with the #3 rushing from the B gap and the #2 defender off the ball wrapping to block the punt. This play proved to not only change the game’s momentum, but led to a score for the Panthers Special Teams unit.
Entering the Special Team Carousel
The Washington Football Team released veteran K Dustin Hopkins early on Wednesday after missing 2 FGs and 2 XPs on the season. The move assumes a risk for the WFT in the kicking department, as they join the placekicker carousel that has been spinning fast so far this season. It is no fun to be a part of the carousel for the coordinator, but from the outsider perspective it is hard to judge without seeing what practice is like every day.
While Hopkins is an average to above average kicker at times, he has not been horrible this season. The 2 missed FGs actually still puts him firmly in the upper half in FG% through six weeks. The timing is interesting, as he has only missed 1 FG in the past 5 weeks and no XPs in the past two weeks (both missed XPs coming in Week 4).
New kicker Chris Blewitt will now start his career kicking in a very tough environment in Green Bay this week, followed by a trip to Denver before Washington’s bye.
Keep an eye out for the kicking situation in LA with the Chargers as their young kicker, Tristan Vizcaino, has missed 5 XPs so far this season (66.7%), which is by far last in the NFL.
Kotwica’s Clutch Kicks
Credit to Jaguars K Matthew Wright
- The Jacksonville Jaguars made their first FG of the season this past week in London. Not only did Jaguars new kicker Matthew Wright make his first FG in 2021, but he also hit the game winning 53-yard FG with 1 second left on the clock in the 4th quarter in a 20-20 game to give the Jags their first win this season. Double credit for hitting two 53-plus-yard FGs with under 4 minutes left in the 4th quarter.
Credit to Steelers K Chris Boswell
- Boswell has been the Steelers kicker since the 2015 season with 5 out of his 7 years (including this year) having a FG% over 90%. With 1:35 left in the 4th quarter, Boswell hit a 52-yard FG to go up by 3 points. Seahawks K Jason Myers matched him with 2 seconds left, but the Steelers were able to pull off an OT victory on the leg of a 37-yarder from Boswell to push the Steelers back to .500.