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Football University: Special Teams

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Special teams units are perhaps the most under-appreciated units to the casual fans. It's easy to see when the offense screws up or does a great job. Same thing with defense. With special teams the only time you see much attention to it is when it goes bad--blocked punt, missed field goal, long return on a kick off or punt. 

Even when the average fan pays attention to special teams it's generally to the skill positions--kicker, punter, holder, returner, and maybe the long snapper. Most fans don't pay much attention to the rest of the unit on the field. My goal is to correct that with this post on the special teams. 

There are certain kinds of people that you look for on your special teams:


  • Good athletes. They have to be fast and strong
  • They have to be fearless. Special teams contact is more dangerous than on most plays
  • Smart. Players have to be able to recognize trick plays
  • Disciplined. Your players have to be disciplined. If they don't follow their assignments on special teams it can be disastrous.  
  • As odd as it sounds you actually want backups on your special teams. Special teams units are generally made up of 2nd and 3rd string players. This gives them a chance to get some gametime in and get experience and it lets coaches evaluate their athleticism and fearlessness. It also prevents your starters from getting injured un-necessarily (see Clements, Nate for an example of that). 
Join me below the jump as we go over special teams in more detail.



Other than the kicker the most important players on the field might be the "gunners". These are the two players who are lined up on each side of the field closest to the edge. Their job is to run down the field as fast as they can and force the returner to move to the inside of the field where the most traffic is. They are also the ones responsible for downing the ball before it goes into the endzone. Gunners are generally your 2nd and 3rd string DBs or WRs because these players have the best hands and are the fastest on the team. 

The rest of the players are responsible for lane containment. Basically each player is lined up about 5 yards apart. Each player is responsible for his lane down the length of the field. If they get blocked they need to shed their blocks, because a quick returner can exploit their seam to get outside of the coverage. 



Here we have a starting diagram for the positions on the kick-off team.




Here we have a basic formation for lining up on a kick return.     


I'll explain the names in just a bit. The front five will line up at the 48 yard line. The second level will line up somewhere around the 30 yard line to 35 yard line. This spot depends on many factors, including the return play that's being run, as well as the leg strength of the kicker. The third level will line up about the 15 yard line, and the last level will be about the 10 yard line. Sometimes you'll see formations where the third level is one player with three returners, and sometimes you'll see three players on the third level and only one returner.

This is your basic line up formation for a return. The five guys at the top are your biggest guys on the return team and will be responsible for doing the heavy blocking. The size decreases and speed increases as you move further down the field. The reason we name the return players is so that we can give them specific blocking assignments. 

Center: Tight End or Fastest Best Lineman 
Guards: Linebackers, Tight Ends, Full Backs, Running Backs or Best Linemen 
Tackles: Tight Ends, Wide Receivers, Defensive Backs, Linebackers or Running Backs 
Ends: Tight Ends, Wide Receivers, Defensive Backs, Running Backs, or Full Backs 
Upbacks: Next best deep returners. Must be good open field blockers. Fearless. 
Returners: Best deep returners. Must be able to communicate with others on the field. Fearless.     


There's a surprising amount of complexity in kick-off returns. I suspect that many of us remember being coached to run down the field and hit the first guy you see with a different color of jersey on. That's certainly one way of doing it, but it's not nearly as effective as some other options. Before getting into some of the more complicated return plays I wanted to cover some basic plays that are run at just about every level. 


The Wall

The first of these is the "Wall", which can be made up of of any number of players and go to any side. The basic idea is that the players on one side of the field block the guys coming down and force them to one side of the field. The blockers don't necessarily have to block hard--often the momentum of the incoming players will be enough to do the job (think a left tackle pushing a rusher out past the QB). The goal of this is to give the returner extra lanes to use in returning the ball. 

The most basic of the walls is formed by forcing the defensive players to the outside, but then you have to deal with the players on the other side of the field. If your special teams guys are quick enough you can form a wall by blocking the players to the inside of the field. This is ideal as it allows the return man unimpeded access down the sidelines.  


In this diagram the arrow in blue is the returner and the red are his blockers. As you can see the players line up at different depths on the field so they can force their guys in. In this example the biggest worry is with the gunners on the left side of the field. By the time the returner gets that far the gunner should've shed his block. Of course if you can get a 30 or 40 yard return on a kickoff there's not too much to complain about. 


The Wedge

Another really popular return formation is the wedge. Last season the NFL's competition committee voted to make wedge formations of more than two players illegal, which forced special teams coaches to do some major adjustments (I feel that Al Everest couldn't adjust and that was part of the problem with our kick returns). Bobby April (formerly special teams coach of the Bills and now with the Eagles) had this to say about the rule change:

"The wedge is like the offensive line," April said. "For us, we have to reduce that line by 33 percent. What would happen if you reduced the offensive line in the running game by 33 percent? Or, in the case of a four-man wedge, what if you reduced it by 50 percent? You'd have a little different running game."

"It was almost like a punt return where each blocker had a guy, he tried to hold him up, and the returner ran for daylight," April said. "I could see where people could end up doing a lot of that, because it's been a successful return in this league fairly recently."

Even though it's now illegal in the NFL I still want to cover it because it's been an important part of the game and it may end up coming back at some point. The basic idea is that you have three or more players forming a line in front of the ball carrier. The closest example in a football game would be a screen pass. Despite the name, there's not very much of a wedge shape to the modern formation (though there used to be). 


Here we've got a five man wedge. The defenders in the first level will try to force as many incoming players as possible to the outside, leaving room in the middle. Hopefully they do their job and the players in the wedge will have a numerical advantage as they come down the field. 

Most returns will use these two formations as the basis, though there's an endless amount of creativity that you can use. Here are some other examples of return formations:


"23 Left"


This is a wall formation to the inside. 

LT - Drop back and begin redirecting L3 inward. Maintain outside leverage on L3. Pin with LE.
LG - Drop playside on L4 and maintain leverage.
C - Drop playside on L5 and maintain leverage.
RG - Drop playside on R4 and maintain leverage.
RT - Drop playside on R3 and maintain leverage.
LE - Drop back to the 30, then work back to LT block on L3. Make sure not to knock LT off of L3 or allow L3 to split block. Pin L3 with LT toward middle.
RE - Hustle to middle of field to gain playside leverage on R5. Avoid other blockers.
LB and RB - Turn and sprint to 10-12 yards in front of ball with other Back,
grab hands temporarily, head towards L2 and release hands. Double team L2 out, 
force upfield or pancake him.
LR and RR - Returner that doesn't catch ball moves to 5 yards playside and 
5 yards in front of ball catcher and leave when he catches ball (make sure he 
catches it). Head toward gap between L2 and L3 looking for L1. If L1 runs 
himself out of play, returner should continue upfield to kicker, etc.    


"32 Right"


Basically the same formation only to the other side. 






Here's the basic punt formation.




The two "gunners" can move downfield as soon as the ball is snapped, but the other players have to wait until the ball is kicked. The job of the gunners is two-fold. They need to tackle the returner as quick as possible. Failing that they need to have containment on the outside and force any returns to the inside. Everybody else on the punt teams has responsibility for their lanes. 



In a punting situation you don't have as much room to work with as you do on a kick return, so there's not quite as much variety in formations as you would otherwise have, though the basic principles are the same. You'd like your returner to bounce to the outside if possible. Failing that you'd like to have numerical advantage in blockers. This happens when you can take the defenders away from the play. 

Here's a good way to do that in a middle return:


Here we have the two "gunners" being forced out to the sidelines. The other blockers also block to the outside, leaving a cone for the returner to move through. If it works he should have just one or two men to beat, one of them being the punter. 


Here's a punt return using the principles of the wall


The most important blocking assignment in this play is with the outside gunner on the return team. He absolutely must make his blocking assignment, which is to force the gunner on the coverage team inside the wall. If he doesn't do that the return will go nowhere. 



Field Goals

The goal on a field goal or PAT is to keep the defenders low. If they get leverage on you they can either get past you to block the kick or jump up and block the kick. 


Normally offensive linemen don't line up right next to each other--there's a space of a couple of feet. In a FG or PAT situation they line up with their feet touching, or in some cases with their feet interlocking. They don't get in a 3-point stance but remain crouched so they can keep leverage. The goal is to block everyone towards the center of the line, creating a mass of bodies. This prevents a clear lane to the kicker by a defender. If the outside men have double-coverage their first responsibility is to the inside gap. By the time a player runs past them on the outside the kicker should've already made the kick.