Let's continue our series on the big special teams plays of the season. Already last month we have covered the following plays - so please review any and all of those if you missed them:
1. Week 2 - Dez Bryant's Punt Return vs Chicago
2. Week 4 - Tennessee's Marc Mariani Kickoff Return
3. Week 5 - Minnesota's Percy Harvin's TD Kickoff Return
4. Week 6 - Dez Bryant's TD Punt Return vs Giants
5. Week 8 - Bryan McCann's fumble and TD return by Nick Collins at Green Bay
6. Week 10 - Bryan McCann's Punt Return for a Touchdown
We have 2 more special teams plays that I would conclude are big plays in 2010, so let's cover #7 today and we will finish the series later in the week.
This one could be called Jesse Holley's biggest play of his young career. The next one might be called Jesse Holley's biggest bad play of his career, but we will get to that blocked put in Indianapolis at another time.
Thanksgiving Day against New Orleans, and to this point of the season, the punt team had nothing out of the ordinary. Mat McBriar had exceptional performances all year and generally when it was time for the Cowboys to punt, they would turn the field position of the game and never concede much of a return. Uneventful, indeed.
The Saints were up 10 points midway through the 3rd Quarter and needed something to happen. That is what you depend on your special teams for - to occasionally turn a game with a big play.
Here is how the Cowboys were lined up for this punt against New Orleans:
I never noticed that during the season they were using Danny McCray-40 as a "gunner" out wide left of the formation. Then, the Cowboys employ a rather odd unbalanced line to the left with Victor Butler-57 the only player to the outside of deep snapper LP Ladouceur-91. Then, on the right of LP are 3 mates, Scott Chandler-86, Leon Williams-52, and Sean Lee-50. Wide right is Bryan McCann-37 as the gunner-right. Then, the Cowboys have 3 players deeper. 2 Up Backs - Barry Church-42 right behind the left flank and Jesse Holley-16 behind the right flank. Then, Sam Hurd-17 is the "personal protector" for McBriar-1 and responsible for lining everyone up, making sure everyone knows the proper calls, and surely has the right to call a fake if he sees the proper alignments.
In the NFL, it is rather common to see the punt return team line up 2 guys opposite the gunners to make sure those guys don't make the play on the return man. I assume everyone knows that the illegal man downfield rule prohibits everyone but the gunners from crossing the line of scrimmage before the ball is kicked.
As a point of strategy, watch 37-McCann on the video below. It looks like the Cowboys have a play on where he knows he is up against 2 Saints at the line, so when the ball is snapped, it appears the Cowboys want him to take out a 3rd man. He runs right for the line of scrimmage and attempts to take out the man who is assigned to Holley-16. When McCann takes out the Saints player, Holley is free to run down the field unaccounted for. It is actually a very smart strategy, because if this runs well, McCann can actually cancel out 3 Saints on the play.
And it sure looks like in this case he does just that.
On the other side of the field, McCray-42 is only single-teamed, so he heads down and must keep contain to the wide side of the field.
Again, to miss the role of Mat McBriar would be wrong. He punts this ball about 60 yards from the Cowboys 25 yard line, all the way back to the Saints 15 where Reggie Bush is headed back and to the left as he fields the punt. As we have discussed in the past, there is a fine line where you don't want to out-kick your coverage as the Giants did previously on the Dez Bryant punt return, but it sure looks like McBriar can use distance and hang time simultaneously, and that is what makes him one of the very best punters in the NFL.
As the punt lands, Scott Chandler-86 is in a fine position of contain right down the center of the field. Go back and watch the snap of the punt and watch 91-Ladoucuer basically set a pick for 86-Chandler to run free. If you study punt coverage, you see all of the tricks employed to get guys off their men at the punt to give your coverage unit a chance to make a tackle without a blocker in your path. Downfield, Chandler is pushed in the back by 31-Pierson Prioleau of the Saints and the officials throw the flag. As a side note, Chandler would then be released the next week so the Cowboys could sign Martin Rucker as their 3rd TE and Chandler now plays for the Buffalo Bills.
Anyway, Reggie Bush now heads to his right looking for a lane, but the Cowboys do a fine job of building a wall at about the 20 yard line and continue to string him out. As Bush gets near the sideline, he slows down a bit and that gives Holley a chance to fly in from behind and strip the ball out of Bush's arms. From there, Leon Williams is aware and ready to fall on the punt and the punt coverage unit has given the Cowboys the ball deep in Saints territory.
This play turned the entire game and actually put the Cowboys in a 27-23 lead late in the game. If they would have held on, there is no doubt that Special Teams would have been credited for their fine work here plenty more than they were.
But, make no mistake - this was a huge example of how momentum can change on any punt or kickoff.