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Film review: At last, the Lions have a punt return game

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The Lions are on their way to having unbelievably good units in all phases of special teams.

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NFL: Detroit Lions at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Review: What do you (really) need from a punt returner?

As soon as Jamal Agnew scorched past Brad Wing’s poor ankles for a touchdown to put the Lions back up by two scores on “Monday Night Football,” we knew it would be important to talk about punt returns this week on Pride of Detroit. Things got a lot more interesting when the rookie was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week, locking the award up for special teams coordinator Joe Marciano’s unit for the second straight week. At that point, we really knew we needed to say something about this.

To really understand how the fifth-round selection from the University of San Diego has taken the punt return bull by the horns, let us begin by establishing what this crucial specialist in the kicking game must master. Here is a list of references for the article, which are all quite good reading for general special teams information:

Of all the “teams” that make up the kicking game, it is generally agreed upon in the coaching profession that punting is the most important. Straight from the godfather of special teams play himself—George Allen—we have this passage at the very beginning of his manual (p. 2, emphasis in the original):

“After many years of coaching this game, I have come to the firm conclusion that the punt is the most important play in football. Certainly, all six phases of of the kicking game are important; however, I feel that you must concentrate on and develop your punt team first. This should take a great deal of your special teams practice, particularly in the pre-season.”

The reason punt plays are so critical is explained well by Marv Levy, who was Allen’s second kicking game coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams (after Dick Vermeil). From Levy’s memoir (p. 133):

Each kicking game play, I stressed, is more heavily weighted than almost any single offensive or defensive play from scrimmage because at least one of three game-altering elements is inherent to every kicking play:

1. A change of ball possession will occur as on a punt or a kickoff.

2. A large amount of yardage with heavy impact on field position is involved. A punt, for instance, usually means a 35- to 45-yard switch, and it includes the ominous potential for an all-the-way return by a dangerous runner in a broken field environment.

3. A clearly defined opportunity to score prevails, with success or failure to be determined on that specific play. This, of course, is the situation that exists on every PAT and field goal attempt.

Keep in mind that the objective of the punter, according to Ray Guy, is to deliver the ball in a way “that minimizes or virtually eliminates any return and gives the punting team an advantage in field position.” (p. 135) Comparing two types of punts, the punting legend tells us that hang time is the key to effective punting because it ties into Marv Levy’s point number 2 (p.132-133, emphasis added):

Consider that a ball punted 45 yards with a 4-second hang time is likely to be caught and returned, let’s say, for 5 yards. Another ball punted for 40 yards with a 4.5-second hang time is to be caught but not returned because the coverage team has more time and less distance to travel. Both punts finish with the same net distance (40 yards), but the second punt was more effective because there was no return. No return means no chance for the opponent to return the punt all the way.

With punt plays, both items 1 and 2 on Levy’s list are extremely high-likelihood outcomes. The emphasis, of course, is always in the order of the items: it is of utmost importance to secure the ball before thinking about breaking it open for big yards. Coach Bill Lynch from DePauw University, writing in the punt and kick return chapter of the AFCA’s Complete Guide to Special Teams leads the punt return section by stating it plainly (p. 214, emphasis added):

The most important part of each punt return is catching the ball. The returner must sprint to get into position to catch any balls he can. As mentioned, the return team loses an average of 15 yards each time the ball hits the ground. The returner needs to work to get squared up when catching the ball. He does not want to be turned toward the sideline when fielding the ball.

This is the same reasoning given by John Madden (p. 175): “Punt returners are like punters. They’ve got to catch the ball before they do anything else. The worst thing for a coach is to have a punt returner back there who has trouble catching the ball. If he doesn’t catch it cleanly, it doesn’t make much difference how darting a runner he is.” George Allen concurs, writing that “the punt returner is critical to success — he must have sure hands, good judgement, toughness, quickness, and speed (in that order).” (p. 2)

From the punt returner’s perspective, then, the focus needs to be on getting into proper position to field the ball and ensuring no mistakes in either catching it or letting it go. That guarantees the change of possession happens successfully, and his team’s defensive stop does not go to waste. As Madden puts it (p.175-176), “on a punt return, you don’t expect much yardage. If your punt returner gets anywhere from 5 to 10 yards, he’s doing his job. Anything more than that is gravy. When the other team is punting, your defense has done its job — it has stopped the other team’s offense. Now your team is getting the ball.”

John Harbaugh, current head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, agrees. In the AFCA guide’s chapter on punt return plays, written while he was special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, he characterized the punt return play as psychologically being the first play on offense. A 10-yard return was as good as an offensive first down in field position (p.42):

Before we can attempt to establish the first down on every play, however, we must do certain things to ensure that the punt return play is indeed the first play of the offensive series and not a play that puts our defense back on the field. Our first goal is to play sound football and avoid creating a negative play for our football team. The punt return unit’s top priority is to make certain that after the play is completed, our offense takes the field.

Among Harbaugh’s measures of success for the punt return unit is that the “returner demonstrates consistently good ball handling and decision making,” and “the unit has the ability to force returnable punts” because “not every punt provides the opportunity for a block or a big return.” (p. 43-44) What the other ten men on the field do in terms of pressuring the punter to rush a bad kick, holding up the kick coverage at the line with rushing or line blocking, and creating spaces and seams in the coverage lanes down the field are what provide those opportunities. The good returner bides his time and fields every punt as cleanly and safely as possible until an opening presents itself to go for the big return.

Working it out in preseason

The emphasis on ball security and fielding punts cleanly means returners need to understand where they are on the field, be able to judge the speed and trajectory of the ball as it comes off the punter’s foot, and decide in a split second whether he needs to fair catch or wave off his own players to clear the landing area. John Madden pointed out the danger of making bad decisions with deep punts and letting the ball bounce (p.175): “Unless our punt returner was standing on our 10-yard line and let a punt sail over his head, I always wanted every punt to be caught. The worst thing a punt returner can do is let a punt bounce in front of him, then watch that ball bounce behind him. Or have that ball hit his leg or a teammate’s leg, and have the opposing team recover it.”

The 10-yard rule is a pretty universal rule of thumb, and Lynch’s chapter on punt returner techniques includes a section on it (p. 217). Echoing Madden’s warnings about wild ricochets hitting a leg by accident, Lynch’s guidance on bouncing punts instruct the returner to give such balls a wide berth (p.216): “If the returner is unable to get to a punted ball, he should allow the ball one good bounce before fielding it, as long as it is safe. The returner should place himself 10 yards behind the ball and be square to the line of scrimmage. Giving the ball 10 yards allows the returner to field a good bounce and avoid a bad one. The returner does not want the bouncing ball to hit him.”

2017 Preseason at IND, 1Q (0:43). Fourth-and-9 at the Indianapolis 21.

Near the end of the first half in Week 1 of the preseason at Indianapolis, Agnew was in the game to return his sixth punt of the game. Although several of the previous punts resulted in fair catches, the way Lucas Oil Stadium is built, there are spots on the field where high punts can get lost in the sun. Rigoberto Sanchez boomed a 54-yarder with good hang time, and the ball went into one of those blind spots. In the GIF above, we can see the same thing Chris Spielman did on the broadcast: the rookie clearly lost track of the ball in the air.

Immediately after the play, as Agnew went back to the bench, he motioned over to coach Marciano that he couldn’t see the ball. What Spielman thought was going down on the sideline was that the coaches were disappointed he let the ball hit the ground: “Right when he gets tackled there, watch his hands because the coaches are getting on his rear end ‘why didn’t you get it?,’ and his hands go ‘I couldn’t see it! I couldn’t see it!’ I heard him yelling at him down there, because he had a lot of room to run.”

When you look at Marciano’s body language, that is not the kind of teaching point I think he is trying to make. Instead, look at where the ball lands in relation to Agnew. The main concern he should have as a returner is to avoid negative plays and bad bounces. Now, it turned out that the ball popped right up and could be caught quickly after one bounce for a 7-yard return, but that was lucky. A good coach is not pleased with those yards because it is unsound football.

For example, Bill Parcells once got on Curtis Martin’s case after the Hall of Fame running back made a spectacular play despite making all the wrong choices (p. 302):

“I was trying to train him to be the best that he could be. You can’t always judge the wisdom of choices by the results. We have a saying in football. It’s ‘NATO: Not Attached to Outcome.’ You may do something that turns out well, but it’s still not the most prudent choice. I wanted him to learn every single thing that I know about the running-back position. So whenever I saw him starting to use a habit that I knew was not good based on my experience, I got on his ass about it.”

“In this case he made some judgement calls that usually result in being thrown for a loss. But his unique ability” — Parcells chuckles — “just happened to take over, and he was able to make every defender miss. So my hat’s off to him on that, but you can’t count on it happening consistently.”

Here, Agnew loses track of the ball but hardly moves aside to get clear. Once he knows he cannot find the ball and make a good catch, he must give it a lot of space because he does not know how the ball will bounce. In this case, he made a judgement call to stand to the side and let it bounce next to him, and he has phenomenal quickness and agility to pick the ball off the bounce and snag a few yards.

But you cannot count on that particular nice bounce happening; a bad bounce could result in a catastrophic turnover if the ball caroms off his leg or a teammate’s leg. The safer play is to forget the return and truly get clear, to ensure that on the next play the offense takes the field. That is what I think is more likely going through Joe Marciano’s mind when he sees that happening on the field.

2017 Preseason at NED, 3Q (8:56). Fourth-and-6 at the New England 12.

In the third quarter of preseason game No. 3 against the New England Patriots, the Detroit Lions scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions. Sandwiched between those scoring drives was a three-and-out stand by the defense with the Patriots backed up deep in their own end. The ensuing punt would give the Lions great field position for the second touchdown of the quarter. Before any first downs or touchdowns could happen, though, the punt return team needed to take possession of the ball.

In the image above, there is a problem with the way Agnew fields the punt: he is running sideways while catching the ball. Instead of sprinting over and squaring up, the sideways drift makes cleanly fielding the punt more difficult.

As the punt arrives, he looks upfield into 42 CB Kenny Moore approaching at full speed and drops the ball. This is an outstanding directional punt outside the numbers and the coverage is good, but job No. 1 is to get good positioning and secure the ball.

Starting the season right

From the get-go in Week 1 of the regular season, Agnew showed a renewed dedication to fundamentals as the team’s lead punt returner. Better positioning, concentration on the ball, and improved awareness and field management all showed up in the home win against the Cardinals.

2017 Week 1 ARI, 1Q (7:56). Fourth-and-1 at the Arizona 42.

The first punt return opportunity of the season, Agnew delivers a textbook return. Great form squaring up under the ball and seeing it all the way into his hands and body, then turning to make the first guy miss. Although there was an unnecessary roughness penalty on Dwayne Washington to negate the return, it was a super 11-yard effort by the rookie to clear traffic and get upfield.

Now, the thing is, Jamal Agnew is a ridiculously quick and agile player who can make guys miss in the open field—if he gets there. Could Joe Marciano find a way to let a player play?

2017 Week 1 ARI, 4Q (14:29). Fourth-and-11 at the Arizona 34.

Late in the game and trailing by two points, Marciano changed it up and sent in a 10-man balanced (5 on each side of the center) front middle return instead of a standard 7-man or 8-man front. The Lions are completely playing for the return here and playing jam/holdup all across the entire front to create space at the back end for Agnew to work. In the image above, you can see prior to the snap in the top pane that everyone is pulled inside, forcing the Cardinals to mirror and bring in their gunners to help block to ensure the punt gets away.

Once the ball is snapped, the entire front engages but does not rush. Instead, they are giving only a token rush and then immediately turning into blockers to hold up and delay the coverage from getting down the field to Agnew. In the bottom pane, the thump of the punt off 2 P Andy Lee’s foot is imminent and only one offensive player (26 CB Brandon Williams, who was the right side gunner from the top of the formation that moved in) is even at the line of scrimmage and disengaged.

When we look at Agnew fielding the punt, there are two things to notice. First, great form on the catch. He is backed up at the 10-yard line, and takes perfect form cradling the ball while squared up. This is assisted by the second thing to notice: No Cardinals! The purple arrow at the right edge of the image is pointing at Williams’ hand, and he is the nearest opposing coverage player to Agnew when the catch is made—roughly 18 yards away! Noteworthy effort here by 31 CB DJ Hayden as the anti-gunner opposite Williams, riding him all the way down the field across the hashmark area clear to the area outside the numbers on the other side of the field and away from Agnew.

This is a really nice setup because the loaded front took the rushers out of Agnew’s face and let him concentrate on the ball without worrying about getting popped. Also, the middle return hold up cleared a ton of green space for him to work his first move. 24 yards later, the Lions had a sampling of what their new punt returner’s quickness could do when paired with an appropriate punt defense design.

2017 Week 1 ARI, 4Q (7:19). Fourth-and-18 at the Arizona 41.

In the middle of the fourth quarter, clinging to a slim 21-17 lead, the Detroit defense held firm against Arizona near mid-field to force a punt. Recognizing a good thing from earlier, Marciano sends in the same 10-man front with explicit instructions to make sure nothing gets through. Boxed in orange is special teams ace 26 S Don Carey, who is sitting in the middle ready to block anything that gets through.

At the bottom boxed in purple, that’s 28 CB Quandre Diggs and 45 S Charles Washington riding the gunner 36 S Budda Baker into the sideline. Diggs actually ends up blocking him all the way laterally out of bounds into the bench area of the Lions, and Washington picks Baker up even after he tries to recover and run back onto the field to cover the return. Just amazing effort all around by the punt defense.

Look at what is missing from the picture when Agnew tucks the ball away: there are no Arizona coverage players within 20 yards of him! Give a dangerous returner room to read the lanes and accelerate, and good things can happen.

Once again, sound tracking of the ball in the air and feet squared up perfectly. The call by Marciano complements what Agnew brings athletically to exploit a good return opportunity and clears the deck for him to exercise sound fundamentals. Easy 13-yard pickup on the return to put the offense in business near the 30-yard line and reduce the net yards on the punt by nearly a third.

Ohhhhhh Monday Night

Now we come to the prime time game on the road against the Giants. On the first punt of the game, 9 P Brad Wing somehow got a poor distance punt that took a bad bounce, netting just 37 yards. When pinned deep in your own end, punting has to try for distance and Wing did not achieve it, but the interesting part of the play for our purposes is the reaction by Agnew.

2017 Week 2 at NYG, 1Q (9:51). Fourth-and-9 at the New York 17.

The formation Detroit comes out in is a 6-man front with both gunners doubled up with two anti-gunners in front of them. Coming in on the left edge of the screen, we can see Agnew directing traffic and yelling at his guys to get clear. Not only has he read the punt direction and distance well, recognizing it early, he is keeping good distance and helping his teammates stay safe as well. No opportunity for a good return, but this is sound football and the offense gains possession with superb field position.

2017 Week 2 at NYG, 1Q (5:49). Fourth-and-17 at the New York 29.

On the second punt, the Lions adjusted to a new look with double over one gunner (Washington and Diggs on 17 WR Dwayne Harris) and a single over the other (24 CB Nevin Lawson on 18 WR Roger Lewis). It is an interesting adjustment since the 7-year veteran Harris is New York’s special teams ace and made the Pro Bowl as a gunner, but Lewis is just in his second year as a pro.

This punt play did not generate much of a return opportunity, but just look at the fundamentals. Agnew looks much more comfortable both judging the punts and getting in proper position, but also in his transition to making the first coverage man miss.

2017 Week 2 at NYG, 4Q (12:56). Fourth-and-1 at the New York 28.

Now we come to the play everyone has probably been waiting for. Marciano sends in yet another look, this time bringing an 8-man front, putting Lawson on Lewis and just Diggs alone on Harris. Why is he okay with isolating Diggs on Harris? First, because Diggs is actually playing amazing special teams as an anti-gunner this year. After watching all of the punt defenses from preseason and the two weeks of the regular season, I am beginning to understand why the staff was okay with losing Johnson Bademosi. Quandre Diggs is perhaps even more valuable than his resurgence as a stout nickel corner would indicate; the guy is unbelievably tough and giving a hell of an effort on every special teams play he is on.

The second reason is because Marciano has a left return ready:

The Giants happened to kick to the Lions’ left, and the Lions are prepared to run it back to that side (away from Harris), so everything is arranged quite well for a big return. It is obvious in the above overhead shot how each of the return team blockers has some kind of leverage to an observable lane. The only free man available to make a play boxed in red—the unblocked extra guy that Agnew must beat one-on-one — is 51 LS Zak DeOssie.

The long snapper has no chance whatsoever in the open field against such an elusive runner. 85 TE Rhett Ellison almost makes it inside of Valoaga to save the touchdown, but Agnew’s natural ability takes over and he spins out of Ellison’s attempt.

That is how the punt return game for the Detroit Lions has become such a potent force: lots of committed special teamers like Carey, Diggs, Longa, and Washington combined with experienced coordinating from Marciano and now a true returner with elite athleticism in Agnew rather than an athlete trying to be a returner. The kind of production seen from the punt return game in the first two weeks of 2017 is what happens when the right talent and good coaching come together.