Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Special Teams - A Game Examined

There is so little information out in the blogosphere about special teams for football fans to read and fully grasp the realities and concepts about what helps a team survive the catastrophes of a blunder. A team plays hard and executes a game plan against a tough opponents for 4 Quarters of war, but a blocked punt surrendered sabotaged all efforts and placed that game in the loss column.

It happens all of the time and is one of the most stressful parts of a head coach's life. It happened to Norv Turner in 2010 with the San Diego Chargers after a 13-3 team from the previous year missed the playoffs and finished 9-7 largely because of blunders on their special teams. And, to many, those blunders happened because when it came time to pick the roster, not enough consideration was placed on having proper special teams players on your sideline.

When you are picking a roster, it is much easier to do so without any regard to the special teams. Pick the best players who can help your offense and your defense. Then, grab a punter and a kicker and everyone will figure it out as we go, right? Well, the Chargers thought that and their promising season exploded.

They are the most recent example of a team that was good enough being sabotaged, but the history books are littered with them. So, that is why, in this space, we like to be the rare media type that tracks this sort of information rather than the normal and generic phrase you will see in stories that says, "he is good on special teams" or he "contributes on special teams". That is vague and incomplete information. Let's actually figure out who is doing what. And to do so, I picked a game from last season to study.

I picked Week 11 at Washington to examine. The best way to work our way through the vital nature of special teams was actually to deconstruct a game from a purely special teams standpoint. Then, as you look at the 53 man roster, you will see how the "Gameday 46" gets used in an actual game with real live situations, injuries, and adjustments on the fly.

Here, is a screen shot from the actual game-book which is available at for any game that is played. By looking at the game-book, you can learn quite a bit. Here is a quick overview of the Cowboys roster that day:


As I have mentioned in the past, NFL teams try their best to maximize the amount of effectiveness that they can squeeze out of their roster on game day. Here is what they must sort out:

On this game in November, the Cowboys offense had 73 snaps (77 if you add the 4 plays nullified by penalties) and the Washington offense had 65. Additionally, there were 12 total punts and 11 total kickoffs in the game between the two teams. Also, 3 field goals were attempted and 6 extra points. So, if you add them all up, in this rather typical NFL game, there were 170 different occasions where the team had to dispatch 11 different players to go fill a responsibility. Since the game was eventually won by a sliver, you can understand that one mistake on any of the 170 plays can alter the outcome of the game.

Let's try to remember this game's situation: Miles Austin and Mike Jenkins were two starters who were unable to play. So, Laurent Robinson took all of Austin's snaps and then Kevin Ogletree took Robinson's snaps as the #3 receiver. Mike Jenkins was out, so Orlando Scandrick moved up and then Alan Ball also moved up on the defense to replace Scandrick as the #3 corner. Jon Kitna and Tony Fiammetta were hurt, too, but the other 3 game-day in actives, David Arkin, Daniel Loper, and Clifton Geathers were healthy scratches that were on the roster but not able to make a strong case to dress out because all 3 were developmental players that the Cowboys did not want to risk losing, but also didn't wish to play.

So, let's deconstruct the "Gameday 46".

The offense takes 73 snaps. Of those 73, the following players took at least 70 snaps: Robinson, Witten, Free, Holland, Costa, Kosier, Smith, and Tony Romo. That is 8 players who played on virtually every snap offensively. Additionaly, Martellus Bennett, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, and John Phillips each played between 40-60 snaps as situational substitutes for various packages the offense wishes to run. Lightly used players (less than 25 snaps) were Felix Jones, Ogletree, and Jesse Holley who had just 1 snap.

So, that is 15 players that set foot on the field in Washington as a member of the offense. They also have a group of 5 reserves who never took an offensive snap in this game. That group consisted of Phillip Tanner, Derrick Dockery, Kevin Kowalski, Stephen McGee, and Jeremy Parnell. So, the total offensive players in this game equaled 20.

Now to defense. 65 snaps against (68 if you add the 3 cancelled by penalty) and you see that the every down guys were: Scandrick, Elam, Sensabaugh, Newman, Ware, and Spencer. Players with between 40-60 snaps were: Ratliff, Hatcher, and Ball. Then, players who played less than 30 snaps included: Coleman, Brooking, James, Spears, Brent, Lissemore, Butler, Albright, Church, McCray, and Walker. So, in all, 21 different players played a defensive snap for the Cowboys on this day. Add in Bruce Carter who did not take a snap and the total defensive number is 22.

Then, you add those players who are simply special teams options: Mat McBriar, Dan Bailey, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, and LP Ladouceur and there are the final 5 players. 20 offensive, 22 defensive, and 4 specialists gives you your magic number of 46.

If you were Cowboys' special teams coach Joe DeCamillis, here is a list of players you would not be allowed to consider for special teams due to the large number of snaps that they take on offense or defense, player makeup (OL don't cover punts, veteran players don't have the suicidal tendencies often to be good contributors), and overall value to the team: Romo, Witten, Bennett, Robinson, Bryant, Free, Holland, Costa, Kosier, Smith, Murray, Jones, McGee, Kowalski, Dockery, and Parnell from the offense. Defense places the following players off limits for similar reasons: Ratliff, Coleman, Spears, Hatcher, Ware, Spencer, Lee, Brooking, James, and Newman.

That leaves the following players as candidates for Coach D: John Phillips, Phillip Tanner, Jesse Holley, and Kevin Ogletree from the offense. But, on defense, he has 5 players he can use full-time: McCray, Church, Albright, Butler, and Carter. And then he fills in the gaps with guys he cannot use in all situations, but rather picks 1 or 2 special teams groups and places these players where they can fit: Lissemore, Brent, Elam, Sensabaugh, Scandrick, and Ball.

So, look at that. DeCamillis has 4 offensive players and 5 defensive players to build 4 different special teams. Here is how he did it:

KickoffKickoff ReturnPuntPunt Return
11-Owusu-Ansah11-Owusu-Ansah R11-Owusu-Ansah11-Owusu-Ansah R
43-Sensabaugh92-Brent91-Ladoucer LS32-Scandrick
5-Bailey K95-Lissemore1-McBriar P20-Ball

HTML Tables

Pretty much had to make the best of what he had, so he put Holley, AOA, Albright, McCray, Church, Carter, and Phillips on all 4 teams. Tanner played on 3, Victor Butler helped out, and then each DB seemed to take a turn on at least 1 team.

Now, as games happen, you can see how one injury puts a player on the field and leaves the special teams coach scrambling. You can also see how making big plays on special teams are not always the objective. Instead, we don't want to be the team to surrender them. It is making sure we don't make that big mistake that could cost the team a win. Bruce Carter stopped one long Brandon Banks return in the 2nd Quarter, Mat McBriar stopped Banks another time, but both were huge returns that could have gone all the way. Banks is 5'7, 155 of pure speed. Tired players covering kicks and punts is a horrible combination late in a game. You simply must have players you can trust on those teams.

But, those players who were on all 4 special teams are generally at the very bottom of the roster and most replaceable. Very low paid employees who must earn their keep each week. But, that is the job of the NFL special teams coach. And we haven't even discussed having a game-winning field goal blocked at the end of a game like the Giants did in Week 14.

These are very real concerns and considerations in the war room. If you are trying to look at the roster and draw conclusions, you better spend some time pondering special teams and the ability for certain players to be contributors while others simply cannot. In a pinch, everyone must be ready. If there is an injury in the 1st Quarter, are you prepared to ask the 44th guy on your roster to cover kicks against Brandon Banks or DeSean Jackson with your season on the line?

You better be.

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