There’s nothing that gets me more juiced up than special teams. As a college long snapper, studying how NFL special teams coordinators protect and attack punters has become a strange obsession of mine. That’s why for this post, I’ll be enlightening you on how former New England Patriots special teams coordinator, and current New York Giants head coach, Joe Judge generated pressure against opposing punters and the philosophies behind it.
According to TeamRankings.com, under Judge’s guidance, the Patriots blocked 4.17 percent of all punts they faced in 2019. That was a league-best and a whole 2.45 percent higher than the next best team. In 2018, the Patriots were third in the league in that category at 2.20 percent. In 2017, they were sixth at 1.23 percent. It’s safe to say that Judge was really good at creating pressure on punt plays.
Why send pressure?
The NFL is a return first league, with many teams prioritizing picking up return yardage over blocking a punt. Teams will draft players specifically for their return ability, and legendary returners like Josh Cribbs and Devin Hester could make or break games. A good return can drastically decrease the amount of yardage needed for an offense to score. Because of this, teams typically don’t send a lot of pressure and will instead use players to set up blocks for a return.
However, playmaking punt returners aren’t easy to come by. Most importantly, the more efficient approach for picking up yards on special teams is effectively pulling off a block. Why have a returner run back a 45-yard punt, when your punt block team can get you the ball at or behind the original line of scrimmage?
That being said, blocking punts is not easy. Even with a perfectly executed rush, a punt unit can still sneak off a punt. When sending immense pressure, the added bonus if you don’t block it is you can still disrupt the timing and psyche of a punter.
As someone who’s snapped to four different punters in college, I can tell you most punters don’t react well to almost being blocked or being run into. Punters are not like quarterbacks in terms of demeanor, and even the best punters can get flustered. If you can get inside the head of a punter, you can impact the distance on his punts. Punters will shorten their steps or hurry if he knows a heavy rush is coming again, possibly cutting off yards from his punt.
After watching a lot of different punt return plays, I noticed the staple of Judge’s pressure was attacking the A gaps. The A gap is the space between the center (or the long snapper in this case) and the guard on both sides. This is a common approach and typically involves sending players through both A gaps.
The path from where the snapper is to the punter is the shortest distance to travel for a block. Punt protection will always prioritize protecting this lane before any other. That is why sending two to three players up the middle can divert attention away from someone else.
I believe Judge’s goal is not to use these middle rushers to block the punt, but rather serve as a distraction. All it takes is one offensive player to hesitate or a defensive player to be not fully blocked to result in the ball being tipped.
That’s exactly what happens in the play above. There is nothing overly complex with the rush. It’s lined up with four rushers attacking four blockers on the left, and three players accounted for the same on the right. The right side doesn’t even send all three players, with one dropping back to block for the return.
Nate Ebner fills the opposite A gap, causing personal protector Jeff Heath to pick him up. Now no one is there to help Joe Thomas when he hesitates on who he is supposed to pick up. This split second of indecisiveness allows for a Patriots player to make contact with the ball.
The goal of an overload is to load up one side of the line with more rushers than your opponent can block. While punt protection schemes are designed to identify this pressure, sometimes confusion can lead to missed assignments.
In this play against the Bills, Judge overloads the left side of the line with five rushers going against four blockers. The personal protector’s attention is diverted away from anyone on the left because both A gap defenders attack the middle of the line. Personal protectors are coached to pick up pressure inside out, limiting the shortest path to the football which is a straight line.
As you notice on the outside of the play, J.C. Jackson comes through pretty cleanly with little resistance from a blocker. Because there are now too many players to be accounted for, someone has to handle two rushers at once which is an incredibly difficult task.
Patrick DiMarco of the Bills attempts to block two defenders, but because he is so wide in this attempt, he barely blocks anyone. Jackson then uses this free path to make a play on the football.
Another technique that can be implemented on punt rushes is stunts. The goal of a stunt is for a player to not rush the gap in front of him, but instead slip behind his teammate to occupy another lane. Stunts can be extremely effective because in some cases they will confuse the punt team. If the player you thought you were supposed to be blocking is somewhere else, you might be more inclined to make a mistake. As I’ve discussed previously, the slightest hesitation is all that is required to impact a play.
The above play doesn’t result in a block, but the Patriots do get close. You can see that two different players on the left side of the line redirect from their original paths, and attack the right A gap.
In this instance, the Steelers do properly handle the stunt. However, you can see the protection is stressed, allowing for the right side to get dangerously close to the punter. One Steelers blocker is even almost thrown into punter Jordan Berry.
What to expect for the Giants
Judge was one of the best special teams coordinators in the NFL last season for a reason. I’d argue that his success at blocking punts is what made him so highly regarded. Thomas McGaughey is returning as the special teams coordinator next season, but Judge will likely influence the schemes used on all special teams units.
In 2020, we will likely see much more aggressive special teams units than in the past. And it will all start with attacking punters.