Friday, April 15, 2011

Special Teams - Big Play Files - #8 Taj Smith Blocked Punt

Today, we finally finish 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

7. Week 11 - Jesse Holley's strip of Reggie Bush on punt return

And finally today, a play that would be considered the Cowboys only negative play all season with their punt team on the field.

We normally look at Mat McBriar and marvel. Sometimes, I wonder if he is the most underrated local athlete (although he is anything but local) because of the way that he is the elite at his position and is never mentioned for any reason.

The fact is that punters are punters and most football fans never even think about them until they screw something up. And for the most part, McBriar and the punt team have been so perfect for his career that we only think about him when someone up front allows for a seldom punt block.

We all remember with great ease the nightmare game in Arizona in 2008 when, for the first time in NFL history, a game ended on a blocked punt. This was also the game where Tony Romo suffered his injury that sent that season into a full tail spin.

And, then that leads us to the Colts game this year. A game the Cowboys eventually won, but what a road to get there. One of the biggest plays was early in the 4th Quarter in a scenario that we see all of the time - the return team trying to keep the punt team honest.

In many situations, the return team just wants to block up for a return - especially if the punt is taking place in a rather advantageous spot on the field. But, if they see the punt team is also just focusing on coverage, they may have a few guys challenge those they suspect have fallen asleep on the job.

If it happens quickly, it only takes one guy falling asleep on his assignment. And I am disappointed to report that one of my favorite contributors on special teams in 2010, Jesse Holley, is the guilty party.

Holley has been matched up with Taj Smith quite a bit in this game, but often times it is jockeying for position as Holley is attempting to go make a tackle and Smith is trying to prevent it. In that scenario, Holley is trying to beat Smith down the field from the snap. But, Smith is making sure that if Holley tries to do that too quickly, he will try to counter the move by not touching him and running right at McBriar.

It might be giving Smith too much credit to say he was waiting for just the right time to do this - because if Holley sees an indication that Smith has this as his intention then Holley will not cheat downfield. So maybe Smith plays passive for much of the game, setting the young Holley up for the counter in the 4th Quarter.

However it happened, it is a stroke of genius.

Here is the lineup.

Focus on the right side of the formation. Holley, Sean Lee, Leon Williams and Sam Hurd all have their guys. Hurd is challenged by 96-Keyunta Dawson from Texas Tech in the middle, but Sean Lee fights for a release and is headed down field. Holley is thinking the same thing as he is trying an outside release and cannot believe the ease in which he gets it for a split second - and then he releases what just happened. He was duped.

Because Holley went to the outside (I am guessing that is an absolute technique no-no) he gave-up the inside path to the punter. Again, this happens quite a bit, and if Smith is a tenth of a second later, it is just a close call that you elbow your buddy about while watching the game, but then you pay it no attention and go on with the game.

But, in this scenario, give great credit to Taj Smith for realizing what Holley was doing and then converting every detail perfectly to execute a huge play. And, then returning the blocked punt to the end-zone. Although it does appear that Hurd gets him to the field at the 1.

What a great play for the Colts, and because the Cowboys won, a good lesson to be learned for young Jesse Holley and any other members of the special teams.

Fall alseep once, and you might cost the team the entire game.

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