It seems to me that almost everybody is either an offensive or defensive specialist in the National Football League. John Harbaugh used to be a special teams coordinator and Mike Westhoff is universally acclaimed as a guru, but otherwise, you don't get to hear much in-depth analysis of special teams. With the hiring of Thomas McGaughey as the special teams coordinator, this is something I want to look at more in-depth.
This past week, the New York Jets faced a tough challenge on special teams. Since the kick return distance was shortened, it has become harder and harder to return kicks. As the Oakland Raiders have an excellent punter in Marquette King, who is known for his booming hang time, you may have noticed an inordinate number of fair catches by punt returner Jalen Saunders. This has become a recurring trend in the NFL to increase the hang time of punts, which allows coverage to catch up and make returns less frequent.
However, let's start with the first kick return of the day by Saalim Hakim, because it also happened to be their most successful.
I want you to watch this GIF a few times. Focus on each player. What you'll see is that the guys on the outside immediately just drop back and just inside the numbers. There is an extra man in the middle left (our left) of the field. He is almost always watching where the other team is coming from and makes a beeline across the field to lay a crushing block, fully laid out, that allows this play to even happen. Otherwise, you'll notice that everyone gets picked up. The wedge of two men to the left of the returner each grab their guy. On the right, a hip check opens the lane for Hakim and lets him move forward.
Now let's look at one of the few punts that was able to be returned by Saunders. This one wasn't as successful as the earlier kickoff.
This play is doomed almost from the get-go. On the bottom of the screen, the defender is unable to get his hands on the gunner (also known as a flyer, if you're Westhoff). Teams tend to put their fastest guys on the outside, so he immediately forces Saunders to his left. Unfortunately, as soon as the punt is released, two defenders break through on the top of the formation, with only one guy left to defend them. As the defender chooses the inside most player to block, the gunner on the top of the field is finally gets there after being pushed out of bounds, and there are only two Jets there to block three Raiders.
When you have a kicker with a booming leg as powerful as King, it's important to get people back to block for the returner, because the Raiders had so much time to get down the field. This is, make no mistake about it, a hell of a kick by King. He gives his guys plenty of time to get down the field.
This is the last play I would like to look at today. It's the onside kick from the very end of the game. In almost all circumstances, the opposing team lines up exactly where they plan on going with the ball. Sometimes, they have people on both sides to try and confuse the other side. That didn't happen here. What I want you to focus on is how long the front line stayed in their places, and then when they did move, they moved together. Every single person rushing gets hit and slowed down. Nobody gets a free run at the ball. Everyone does their jobs to perfection.
It's going to be interesting to track McGaughey's progress with special teams, and if he can bring it to the heights it once held under Westhoff. I like that players are staying in their lanes and making the blocks they're supposed to make. People are doing their jobs. When it comes to special teams, that's usually enough to make a difference.