Special teams are not dead.
Yes, the changes in the kickoff rules have negated the impact of returns. But field goals and punts are still very viable ways to affect games. We saw that on Sunday as three teams, the Dolphins, Browns and Ravens, all were propelled to victory by big plays. So chalk one up for the special teams coaches, and the players who make a living on the kicking, punting and return units.
“I think it’s still probably the most underrated phase of the game, and it’s nice to see our guys directly affect the outcome of some games,” Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said from his office on Monday. “I think our game is a perfect example of how one big special-teams play can factor into the whole game and kind of turn the game around.”
For the Dolphins and Browns, the plays didn’t happen deep into the game—we’ll get to failures in execution during crunch time by the Packers and 49ers later in this column—but those special-teams plays loomed too large and were too good not to highlight this week.
“Special teams are huge,” Browns tight end Jordan Cameron told The MMQB. “I think people overlook those sometimes. We won that battle yesterday.”
Falcons at Dolphins
Score: Falcons 20, Dolphins 13
Time: 2:00, third quarter
Situation: 4th-and-14 at Miami’s 25
Result: 53-yard punt by Brandon Fields to Harry Douglas, forced fumble by Don Jones, recovered by John Denney at the Atlanta 19
What happened: After halftime, the Dolphins’ offense produced a lost fumble, field goal, interception and a three-and-out. The Falcons, despite only leading by a touchdown, had control of the game. And then Don Jones, a seventh-round pick and reserve safety out of Arkansas State, started down the field to cover a punt. Falcons cornerback Dominique Franks funneled Jones inside to safety Thomas Decoud on what was supposed to be a punt to the right middle of the field. Decoud, with Franks tracking Jones nearby, spun Jones a little bit on a possible hold.
Knowing that he shouldn’t be inside the ball, Jones headed down the field and toward the sideline where Franks and Decoud put Jones in a double-team vice block. Falcons returner Harry Douglas initially waved off his teammates and wasn’t going to field the shorter-than-expected punt, but he picked up the ball when it bounced to him cleanly. On the inside, Dolphins long snapper John Denney and cover players Jelani Jenkins and Chris Clemons forced Douglas to the sideline. Jones got loose of the double team, closed fast on Douglas and then leveled a hit that jarred the ball loose. “Watching it last night for the first time on video, I didn’t realize he was fighting through the double team,” Rizzi said on Monday. “I just thought that he kept persevering through the play. Heck of a job by him. He just knows one speed—full speed all the time. You can see that at the end. He kind of accelerates through Harry Douglas and does what we call ‘bite the ball,’ putting his facemask right on the ball, and was able to jar it loose.” Jones celebrated the hit but wasn’t immediately aware of how big the play actually was. “He didn’t even realize he caused the fumble,” Rizzi said. “I’m going to jump on him today when we watch the film.” Denney should also be commended for recovering the fumble, which two Falcons had a shot at. That hit and fumble recovery woke up SunLife Stadium and the Miami offense. The Dolphins scored a touchdown three plays later to tie the game, setting the stage for their 27-23 upset of the Falcons.
Browns at Vikings
Score: Browns 17, Vikings 14
Time: 3:45, second quarter
Situation: 4th-and-4 at Minnesota’s 11
Result: Touchdown pass from holder Spencer Lanning to tight end Jordan Cameron
What happened: This is a trick play that the Browns didn’t start practicing until the regular season. “Only the last couple of weeks,” Cameron said on Monday. The tight end isn’t on the field-goal team—“I think that’s why it worked so well,” he said—so as he was trotting off the field, Cameron looked for special teams coordinator Chris Tabor and long snapper Christian Yount. Tabor gave Yount the code word for the appropriate fake as he was going onto the field. He then relayed it to the players who needed to know. “He gave me the eye or whatever, saying the code word,” Cameron said. “I just saw that, acted like I was going to the sideline and then made a left turn and got as close as I could to the sideline, hoping no one saw me.” Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford was the defender on the end of the line, and he’s usually responsible for making sure no one is uncovered on that side of the field. The holder, Lanning, was supposed to check on Sanford before the snap. If Sanford spotted Cameron, the kick would proceed. If Sanford didn’t see Cameron, Lanning would quickly throw the ball to Cameron. “I had to make sure I was on the line of scrimmage, so I was talking to the ref—‘Am I on? Am I on?’ ” Cameron said. “And then I looked to the left and that’s exactly when he threw it. The ball was in the air forever, it felt like. Just had to run my butt off to get into the end zone.” He did, and the Browns, who ran a successful fake punt on the previous drive, led 24-14 in what would be a 31-27 victory. “We scored 10 points off special teams, and that’s huge, especially when we won by four,” Cameron said.
Colts at 49ers
Score: Colts 13, 49ers 7
Time: 4:23, fourth quarter
Situation: 3rd-and-3 at San Francisco’s 6
Result: QB Andrew Luck 6-yard touchdown run
Colts personnel: “Regular” 21 (two backs, one tight end, two receivers)
49ers personnel: Base 3-4
What happened: Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton had to draw comfort knowing that if Indy didn’t turn the ball over, a field goal would make the lead nearly insurmountable: a two-score game with about four minutes to play, and the 49ers with only one timeout. So a run, for the seventh time in eight plays, was coming, and both teams knew it. The 49ers stacked the box for the anticipated run, but the key on the play—a fake lead run, and then bootleg around left end by Luck—was going to be right outside linebacker Aldon Smith (99). To that point, Smith, whose appearance in the game was controversial because he’d been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence after a single-car accident on Friday morning, had been disciplined in his run assignments and defending his gap. There was no indication in the second half that he was being sucked in by the run, which made Hamilton’s play call more interesting. At the snap Smith saw the run start away from him, so he ducked inside to try to make a big play in a crucial spot, but he got burned this time. Instead of staying in his lane, Smith took a few hard steps to where he thought the run was going. By that time Luck, who could have audibled to a regular run or a pass, had carried out the fake handoff to Ahmad Bradshaw, and left tackle Anthony Castonzo was in a position to seal Smith. With receiver T.Y. Hilton taking the cornerback to the end line, Luck was untouched for the touchdown. “We were running so hard and so well, our guys were doing such a great job they had to respect Ahmad and Trent [Richardson], and [fullback] Stanley [Havili] was sticking his face in there and the line was coming off the ball,” Luck said after the game. “We got fortunate, there was no contain out there.”
Packers at Bengals
Score: Bengals 34, Packers 30
Time: 1:25, fourth quarter
Situation: 4th-and-5 at Cincinnati’s 20
Result: Aaron Rodgers incomplete pass (Michael Johnson pass deflection)
Packers personnel: 01 or “Kings” (no backs, one tight end, four receivers)
Bengals personnel: Nickel (five defensive backs)
What happened: Having led by as much as 30-14 in the third quarter, the Packers found themselves trailing late in the fourth when coach Mike McCarthy decided against a 48-yard field goal and went for it on fourth-and-inches. Bengals right end Michael Johnson (all 6-foot-7 of him) got inside of rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari and put his helmet on Franklin’s arm, causing a fumble that was returned for the go-ahead touchdown. Still, the Packers had a very viable chance to win, driving deep into Bengals on the next possession. That’s when Johnson (93) and Bakhtiari (69) would again factor into a critical play. After taking their final timeout, McCarthy elected to have Rodgers throw a hitch route—a five-yard comeback—to receiver James Jones. Because it’s such a quick play, the line must give the quarterback a clear passing lane by chop blocking the defense lineman. Bakhtiari is supposed to shoot out at Johnson’s legs to either get him on the ground (optimal) or at least make him smaller for Rodgers to throw over. At the snap, Bakhtiari took a step back, and then dived with his right shoulder into Johnson’s right leg, fairly weakly. Johnson, a tremendous athlete, went inside the block, leaving Bakhtiari sprawling on the ground, and leaped directly into Rodgers’ throwing lane. Johnson tipped the pass, and it never made it to Jones, who was ready for the back-shoulder throw from Rodgers against nickel cornerback Adam Jones. “You shoot at his legs, and I didn’t get as much as I wanted to,” Bakhtiari told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “I had to get his hands down. Plain and simple.”