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Special Teams Wins Championships? A Look At The Importance Of The Third Unit

During the course of the 2021 season, we have highlighted key special teams plays that have impacted games in order to demonstrate the importance of this phase of the game.  As we get closer to The Big Game, the margin of victory becomes smaller and smaller and the difference that is often overlooked is the discipline and special teams play of one team over another. I will walk you through a few clear examples of the importance of the Special Teams phase and how excelling in it can lead to success as much as overlooking it can lead to failure

Green Bay Packers

Across all major special teams metrics, from DVOA to the Gosselin’s rankings, to include the combination of the two to form the Kotwica’s Rankings which we published a few weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers were squarely in last place. They were worst in the NFL in punt coverage (12.8 yards allowed per return), starting field position (23.4 yard line) and 31st in FG%, a recipe for a poor special teams unit.  This deficiency was somewhat overshadowed due to their overwhelming success on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.  On Saturday, it all came to a head.

Let's first start with the average field position of each team after a kick. The Packers’ average starting field position was the 22.8 yard line including 4 drives in which they started inside their own 22 yard line. In comparison, the 49ers average starting field position was 34.7 yard line with NO drives starting inside their own 23 yard line, leading to a 11.9 yard starting field position differential.

If you take the starting expected points for the Packers to begin all drives vs the starting expected points for the 49ers to begin all drives, on average the 49ers were expected to score .35 more points per drive than their counterpart based on field position. In summary, if you take that margin in summation of all drives, this is just under 3 total points gained by SF by starting field position vs GB (6.4 vs 3.6).

This impact was huge and did not even take into account the 49ers ability to block a field goal at the end of the half and a punt late in the 4th quarter to produce their only touchdown of the game.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs were number two in my special teams rankings this year due to their success in the punt game. They were 3rd in the NFL in yards per punt return (12.0) and 1st in opponents yards per punt return (4.94). Against the Bills on Sunday, the Chiefs averaged 30 yards per punt return (2 returns), while allowing 0 return yards on any punt. The 30 yards difference of field position on these returns allowed them to score 10 extra points (kicking a FG on Hill’s 45 yard return and scoring a TD on Hughes 15 yard return). On drives that started after the Chiefs punted for the Bills, they scored 0 points.

In arguably the best weekend of NFL football that I can remember, in which the margin of victory was so small, it is clear how impactful special teams play on the outcomes of these critical games.  With Championship Sunday right around the corner, there is no question that Special Teams play will significantly influence who gets to play for the Lombardi in early February.