Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Special Teams - Punt Team

It seems rather fitting after Sunday that I continue the special teams series that we started last week with a closer look at the punt teams for the Dallas Cowboys.  I say extra fitting, of course, because the Cowboys demonstrated just how badly poor special teams can ruin a game for you.  Honestly, the Cowboys defense was pretty solid on Sunday in San Francisco, but the 49ers had 3 huge punt returns on the first 3 Cowboys' punts followed by a free touchdown on a blocked punt in the end zone.  It absolutely affected every component of the game with the Cowboys giving up massive amounts of field position, points, and ultimately were not competitive in a game - mainly because the special teams were absolutely outclassed.
Now, in fairness, Week 2 of the preseason is simply more preparation for Week 1.  That means that they are hypothetically not rehearsing punt coverage with the preferred 11 players on special teams, but rather they are trying to find out who can do it and who can't.  Hypothetically, we can shake off some of those disasters by concluding that they were able to identify many weak links who were auditioning to make the roster because they were exceptional on special teams, but, of course, we could also conclude that they are having a hard time finding 11 good candidates - meaning they may have to populate their punt and kickoff teams with mediocre ST players if they can't find 11 good ones.  And that is where games can be lost.
What I thought would be a good idea today would be to actually discuss what positions are needed for a punt coverage team and what type of players are used to fill each of those spots.  You absolutely do not just plug anyone into these spots for very obvious reasons - such as you are going to be chasing down DeSean Jackson, Devin Hester, or yes, Jarryd Hayne.  So you better have players who are big and strong enough to battle against block attempts, but fast and mobile enough to go down and corral any ideas of a long return.  So, you don't want to be too extreme in either direction.  If you put out 9 speedsters on your punt team, then you will certainly suffer blocked punts.  But, if you put 9 stout defenders out to insure your punt is not blocked, you run the risk of having guys who are not good at tackling a dazzling return man in open space.  Decades of experience go into selecting players for this job, so let's examine how the Cowboys handled this last season in Week 1 (ironically, also against the 49ers).
Here is the very 1st punt of 2014.  In theory, everyone is still healthy and available, so this would be Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia's first string punt coverage unit pictured below:
Punter: 6-Jones
PP: 38-Heath
LGunner: 17-Harris
RGunner: 37-Spillman
LWing: 84-Hanna
RWing: 89-Escobar
RT: 59-Hitchens
RG: 51-Wilber
LS: 91-Ladoucuer
LG: 53-Lawrence
LT: 54-Carter
The Cowboys utilize a very traditional punt formation.  It has punter #6 Chris Jones 15 yards deep behind deep snapper #91 LP Ladoucuer (LP is the 3rd longest tenured Cowboy, behind Jason Witten and Tony Romo).  Then, in front of Jones and roughly 6 yards deep is the personal protector #38 - Jeff Heath.  His job, is to clean up any major threats that break through to the final line of defense.
Then, there are two wing players.  On the punter's right is 89-Gavin Escobar and on the left is 84-James Hanna.  They are lined up 1 yard behind the line of scrimmage and often overlap the tackle on either side to close down that inside gap.  They are there to protect the flanks, of course, but the #1 rule is "do not get beat to the inside".  In punt protection, the punt team is banking on the idea that the snap and punt can happen in 2 seconds flat (or less), so if they can simply make a blocker run around them to the punter (15 yards back), it will be next to impossible to get to their destination before the ball is gone.  Basically, do not let anyone run a straight line and come untouched.  Those are the only guys who can block a well-exectuted punt.  As you can see, these players consist of 2 tight ends and a safety.  All guys who can strike the balance between running and physicality.
Next, we have the 5 up front.  They are not the offensive line, because they are not going to sprint 40-45 yards down field with any effectiveness.  Rather, these 5 are going to consist of linebackers and tight ends.  In the Cowboys case last year, it was 4 linebackers and a long snapper.  59-Anthony Hitchens, 51-Kyle Wilber, 53-Cam Lawrence, and 54-Bruce Carter.  Here, you see that basically anyone who is on the roster who is not a star player at tight end or linebacker is going to be vital in covering kicks and punts.  These guys all weigh 230-250, can run at a decent level, and of course, tackle for a living.
Clearly, getting the punt off is priority #1, but that is only the start of the play.  The last two guys we will mention are only responsible for priority #2, which is get downfield and make a play on the return man - or preferably, prevent any return from happening by getting down there so fast that he is tempted to fair catch the ball.  These are the "gunners".  In this particular game, it was 17-Dwayne Harris on one side and 37-CJ Spillman on the other.  These two guys are picked for being fast players who are also quite physical for their size.  Orlando Scandrick often does this job as do other defensive backs.  Sometimes, there are wide receivers that handle this as well (like Harris and Sam Hurd), but honestly, most wide receivers are awful tacklers so they will always lean towards the DBs.  These two guys have to battle their tails off because the return team will put 2 guys on each of them to give their return man a better chance at having a moment to find some space, since all of the other cover guys have to wait for the kick to cross the line of scrimmage.
So, the 9 guys (added to the punter and the deep snapper) are exclusively from the following position groups:  RB, TE, WR, LB, S, CB.  And in those groups, if you are dressing but aren't starting, you almost must be on cover teams.
How good has this group performed for the Cowboys in recent years?
SeasonNet Punt AvgNFL RankNFL Net AvgTotal Punts
Here are the numbers the special teams coach is examining.  Net average.  How many yards of field position is the ball moving when the Cowboys punt?  You can see that in 2014, they punted fewer times than ever before and moved the ball the furthest each time of any of the last 4 seasons.  No big returns and finally we're over the league average in making sure they gained 39.8 yards each punt.
Next, here are the opponents return results - which tells us how well the Cowboys do at covering punts.
SeasonReturn AvgRet-YardsNFL RankNFL Avg
This chart shows the Cowboys opponents return results for the last 4 seasons.  The rank is the Cowboys' ability to limit long returns, meaning that they were the 20th best in 2014 at limiting returns.  As an example, New Orleans allowed only 24 returns last season for only 99 yards.  4.1 a return for the Saints and massive amounts of hidden yardage.
But, as you can see, in a full season, the Cowboys allowed only 240 yards last season.  That is only 15 yards per game in punt returns.  So, when you look at Sunday when they allowed 105 yards on only 4 punts (26.3 yards a return!!!) in one preseason game - AND a blocked punt for a touchdown, you can understand a grumpy coach.
If you, like me, are just curious enough to want to know who was at fault on Sunday, here was the group that allowed the first two punt returns of significance:
Punter: 6-Jones
PP: 38-Heath
LGunner: 23-White
RGunner: 26-Patmon
LWing: 40-McCray
RWing: 44-Clutts
RT: 56-Smith
RG: 51-Wilber
LS: 91-Ladoucuer
LG: 57-Wilson
LT: 52-Gachkar
So, Jones, LP, Heath, and Wilber were the same.  7 newbies.  Which is normal year to year in special teams.
Here is a not-so-fun-fact about the Cowboys special teams.  Since 1998, they have had 10 punts blocked and have only blocked 3 of their opponents.  You don't want to be minus-7 in that category because you are absolutely giving games away.  Can you name the 3 punts the Cowboys have had blocked in regular season games during the Jason Garrett era?
They all seem to happen early in the year.
Sept 11, 2011At NY JetsLoss, 27-24
Sept 16, 2012At SeattleLoss, 27-7
Oct 12, 2014At SeattleWin, 30-23
Incidentally, the Cowboys have no blocked punts under Garrett of their opponents.  The last time they got their opponent was in 2008.  And because I consider us friends, I have provided proof of that moment right here.  Carlos Polk (you remember him, right?) blocked it against, who else, the 49ers.

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