This article is by Patrick McCarthy. You can follow him on twitter at @patdmccarthy. Any and all questions are encouraged. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he played and coached in France and Sweden while also coaching at St. Thomas Aquinas HS (KS) and Neenah HS (WI). Since then he has coached at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Southwest Minnesota State University, Culver-Stockton College and most recently as the Head Coach of the Kuwait Gridiron Football National Team.
In the elaborate math problem that is a football game, each side continually seeks to create a two on one or other favorable numerical matchup; one on ones are not enough. A major reason for this is that, given disparities in size and speed, all “ones” are not necessarily made of the same stuff. And nowhere is this more evident than with special teams, and nowhere on special teams is this more important than punt protection. Frank Beamer calls his punt team “Pride”. The worst punt team in the nation averaged net punting 26.3 yards (Alabama, actually, which is a different discussion for a different time – I’d assume their opponent average starting field position was impressive). There aren’t a whole lot of offenses that can average over 25 yards a play with a certain call, nor will teams gladly cede more than a quarter of the field during a snap on defense – and that is the very worst end of the punt spectrum.
The protection aspect is closely tied into the coverage responsibility of the punt team; if there is no opponent to protect against, then every effort is given to get that member of the punt team into coverage. While watching on TV it is difficult to get an understanding of punt protection schemes that teams are employing. The only time a reply is shown is if there is a block or botched snap, and often times the camera cuts from an offensive or defensive player on the sideline to the ball in mid-air which does not lend itself to appreciating the nuance of the punt game.
When beginning the count, which is usually done by the personal protector (of which ‘Tebow’ could soon be a synonym), it is assumed that the punter and the punt returner cancel each other out.
Also, it would be assumed that the opposition would take two “jammers” to cover the outside “flyers”. With those three players each on the punt and punt block team cancelled out, there are eight members of the punt team to block eight members of the punt return team.
The personal protector will let the punt team know how many players are in the box either through an “Eight Man” call or “44” call (4 on the left of the center, 4 on the right) and give a call to let the center know whether he should go right or left. Some teams will man the whole protection, some will zone the protection and some will zone the side to the long snapper and man the personal protector side, but the technique is essentially the same if the punt return team rushes their respective gaps.
If the punt return team overloads a side, the long snapper will go to the side of the overload. The punt team will likely zone the overload side with the personal protector cleaning up the extra person. If #5 works across the face of the long snapper that is the personal protector’s responsibility. The backside will man protect and exchange any twists.
If the punt return unit decides to have two returners (or double team one of the gunners), then the punt team has an option to stay with a full zone protection (8 on 7) or free release someone to add to the coverage and protect 7 on 7. In the NFL, however, there are rules restricting men downfield*. In college, typically the personal protector or long snapper is the free release player with no protection responsibilities in this scenario.
If the punt return team decides to double team both gunners, that leaves six members of the punt block team. In this case the punt team has the option to release two coverage players. Usually this is either the personal protector and long snapper or the two wings.
Naturally there is a lot of nuance and technique that goes into teaching and evaluating players on the punt team, but hopefully this serves as a solid primer to increase the discourse regarding the X’s and O’s of special teams. However, the release of the All 22 by the NFL to the public this year will allow a much closer look at Special Teams, particularly the punt phase. (Also, how long will it take for college teams/conferences to begin looking in on cashing in on the market for coaches’ film?)
* Following is the NFL rule regarding men downfield on a “scrimmage kick”, which a punt is categorized as. After that is a hypothetical formation/scheme based on the rule as it is written for an NFL team to gain an extra free release man from the snap.
Article 2 During a kick from scrimmage, only the end men (eligible receivers) on the line of scrimmage at the time of the snap, or an eligible receiver who is aligned or in motion behind the line and is more than one yard outside the end man, are permitted to advance more than one yard beyond the line before the ball is kicked.
Penalty: For advancing more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage before the ball is kicked: Loss of five yards.
Most NFL punt snaps begin with roughly the following alignment:
Based on this alignment, only the two flyers are allowed to go more than one yard downfield before the ball is kicked. In the box there are eight members of the punt team to block six members of the punt return team. Again, the college answer is simple, release two box players to balance the numbers in favor of coverage. In the NFL, the rule prohibits this, presumably in an effort to encourage more punt return yards and therefore excitement. (Fair catches are only sexy to punt team coaches.) However, with a change in alignment (or through motion) the punt team can change the count in their favor.
This puts the punt block team in a bind, while also retaining a seven to six box advantage – who do they want to block the extra gunner with? Do they walk a box defender out and lose a rusher? Do they use one of the jammers and create two one-on-one matchups on the outside? Do they introduce two new jammers and make the box count seven to four? At the very least, food for thought providing a bit of subsistence during the football famine of summer.