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Film review: The Lions have what it takes to block kicks

Blocking placekicks involves hard work, determination, and careful preparation. It is not a matter of luck.

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

2017 was a very “special” season

Although Detroit Lions fans may be justifiably disgruntled about the team stumbling in the playoff chase, special teams coordinator Joe Marciano’s kicking game units have been consistently marvelous. From improved performance on punt returns with rookie Jamal Agnew turning in a legitimate bid for a Pro Bowl return specialist selection to the legendary “Prater of Detroit,” special teams have gone to a whole new level in 2017. The specialists like Sam Martin and Don Muhlbach get a ton of respect and love at Pride of Detroit, but this time we want to highlight the non-specialists and their tremendous work on scrimmage kick defense.

According to the NFL Research twitter account, the blocked extra point and field goal on Thanksgiving against Minnesota was the first time any team had blocked two kicks in the same game since Arizona did it to Seattle in 2016. If the final field goal block by Darius Slay not been negated by a penalty flag, who knows how far back NFL Research would have had to reach to find a comparable effort on blocked kicks? Adding the blocked field goal at Lambeau Field by A’Shawn Robinson earlier in the season to the mix, Detroit ought to be considered a legitimate threat to put a hand on footballs aimed at the uprights.

Review: Placekicking protection and execution

Before we delve into those four specific examples of blocked (or almost blocked) placekicks by the Lions this season, let us consider the challenge to coach Marciano’s attackers. What are the opponents’ players doing to prevent field goals and extra point attempts from being blocked? We can break this down into the blocking assignments and the elements of the kick itself that are designed to ensure a safe attempt.

Once again, we consulted some books by football experts with gobs of experience and much more knowledge than us to understand the finer points involved:

Guards and Tackles

Similar to pass protection on a shotgun snap, precedence is given to protecting inside-out since the shortest path to where the ball is being kicked from is a straight line up the gut. In George Allen’s assignments to interior line blockers on point-after-touchdown protection (p. 129), he writes that guards and tackles are “responsible for your inside. Do not move so far inside that you make it difficult for the man outside of you.”

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The key to securing the inside gap for each interior line blocker is good footwork. In the chapter of the AFCA Complete Guide to Special Teams on Extra Points and Field Goals by Lester Erb and Ronald Aiken, they say “the guard’s initial footwork is crucial to helping the center in protection.” (p. 77) Look up at the photo above showing the view behind Matt Prater’s game-winning field goal in the 2016 Thanksgiving game and focus on the legs of each blocker on the line of scrimmage. Notice how the inside leg of each blocker crosses behind the outside leg of the person inside of them. The most obvious place to look in the photo is the left side of the line: Taylor Decker’s right leg behind Larry Warford’s left leg and then Warford’s right leg behind Don Muhlbach’s left leg.

Superficially, it might seem like the linemen are using legs to form a chain and clog the gap in a manner similar to linking arms, but it is not (see below: that would actually be against the rules). According to Erb and Aiken, the leg cross creates bracing and leverage:

On the snap, the guard takes a quick punch step behind the center, no more than 6 inches. The foot should be on the ground at a 45-degree angle with the weight on the inside of the foot. The inside step should brace the center’s near hip so he can sit back on the guards’ thigh pads. The outside foot should not move.

An important note that Erb and Aiken add is that the guards “must be careful not to interlock with the center; that is a penalty.” (p. 73) Such a move is prohibited in Rule 12, Section 1, Article 5(b). That is why the step has to be behind the next player’s foot and is definitely not trying to create a linked chain.

Arbuckle and Mottley characterize the footwork by guards and tackles as a “quick set step with their inside foot, sharply planting it just inside and behind the heel of the outside foot of the player inside of them. They should keep the outside foot planted and stationary,” and all interior line players “should remember that they are responsible for the inside gap first.” (p. 148, emphasis in the original) The same elements are present: maintain outside positioning and plant hard with power to the inside behind the next guy’s leg.

Especially in the case of the center doing the long snapping, this support keeps the rusher from being able to blast through the line. Since the Muhldozer needs to concentrate on getting a good snap off and is going to be late bringing his head up to engage his block, the leg strength of the two guards next to him help him hold his ground against bigger and stronger rushers who get a jump at the snap.

Ends and Wingbacks

For the next blockers outside the tackles, Allen dictates for them to “drop-step with outside foot and set with power to your inside which is your responsibility. Do not be faked to the outside so a man goes through to your inside.” (p. 129) A very similar instruction is given by Arbuckle and Mottley, who emphasize “they are responsible for the inside gap first, then they outside gap. Their first step should be to the inside to secure that gap,” but after doing so will transition to “drop their outside foot back at a 45-degree angle and strike the outside rusher.” (p. 149)

While defending the shortest route to the placeholder is the first concern, the ends and wingbacks must widen a bit and get some depth to increase the distance an edge rusher coming off the corner needs to run before diving across the kick path. Erb and Aiken point out that “if you look at the FG-PAT unit’s alignment from end to end, you should see a bow. This bow actually widens the corners for the rush unit.” (p. 73) Again drawing parallels to pass protection, this is in line with the idea behind kick slide protection by offensive tackles versus edge speed rushes.

One last thing to mention about edge blocking is the option for special teams coordinators to call for a tackle over formation when attempting field goals from harsh angles. Erb and Aiken note that “on hash kicks the flight of the ball often shortens the corner to the wide field.” For example, if a team is kicking from the left hash mark, the corner around the right end of the offensive line is shortened. To counteract that effect, the kicking team may use an unbalanced line and lengthen the right side with an extra blocker. This is, however, an extreme measure, and “you only want to do this if you are kicking from the hash mark and getting wide rushes from the defense.” (p. 74)

Kicker’s optimal angle

From the placekicker’s point of view, every kick is almost always the same and requires the same motion and follow through. Regardless of whether the ball is centered between the hashes, a little off to the side, or all the way outside on a hash the kick will be performed in exactly the same way.

As Guy and Sang point out in their chapter on field goals and extra points, “the kicker approaches every kick by aligning as if there are no marks on the field.” By finding a target that is dead center and framed by the goalpost in his field of view, the kicker makes the goal posts and hashes irrelevant: “the goalposts become narrower as the angle of the kick increases toward either of the hashmarks and when the ball is nearer the goal line,” but none of that matters. “Even so, the kicker still directs the flight of the football toward a precise target that’s within the target zone.” (p. 55)

Here is an extreme side view angle of the goal posts at Mile High Stadium in Denver. Look how narrow the goalposts appear to be:

Miami Dolphins v Denver Broncos Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Now, a dead on straight-ahead view of the same goalposts are “wider”:

Dallas Cowboys v Denver Broncos Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

What Guy and Sang mean is that a kicker is going to pick out something framed by the goalposts in the center of the target like the American flag in the straight-ahead photo and aim at that. An archer firing an arrow at a target is trying to hit the bullseye regardless of how large an outer circle is drawn around the bullseye; the same is true of a kicker trying to drill a field goal through the exact middle of the uprights.

The optimal kicking motion is also identical in nearly every situation when it comes to the vertical angle and height on the kick (p. 57):

On the high school and college levels, the normal point of placement is 7 yards from the line of scrimmage. In order to clear the rush, the football must be 10 feet in the air by the time it travels forward 7 yards. Because professional players often are bigger, faster, and more skillful, usually the point of placement is 8 yards from the line of scrimmage to ensure the kick’s altitude is higher when it clears the line of scrimmage.

The trigonometry behind the angle of the kick is straightforward. The distance from the long snapper to where the placeholder spots the ball for the kick is one side of a triangle (say, 7 yards = 21 feet). The minimum height necessary to clear the outstretched arm of a jumping defender attempting to swat the ball is a second side of a triangle (say, 10 feet). The hypotenuse of the triangle is the flight path of the ball with a calculated launch angle equal to arctan (10/21) = arctan (0.4761904761904762) = 25.463 degrees. Setting back 24 feet instead would get arctan (10/24) = arctan (0.4166666666666667) = 22.6198 degrees.

The height of the tallest and highest jumping defender affecting the kick angle is why some of the best in the business are athletic defensive linemen. The key requirements are a huge wingspan and the ability to really move. Marv Levy remembered two of his best while coaching special teams for the Rams were Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones (p. 135-136):

We also had a few players on our team who had a talent for blocking kicks. On field goal and PAT defense we blocked five attempts. Most of our success there was the result of some fierce individual rushes by defensive standouts Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones. They had the strength, height, and knack for blocking kicks. All I really wanted them to do was tee off using a bull rush, get penetration, and then get their hands high. Nothing fancy.

Per Guy and Sang, “Extra point and field goal kicks are the same. The kicker must develop that mentality. The alignment is the same, the kicking motion is the same, the optimal get-off time is the same, and the required trajectory is the same.” (p. 57) Using the same motion launches the ball at about 25 or 26 degrees (another example of why it is important to listen to the football people and not the math/science people who don’t know football). Trying for additional distance by lowering the angle can be done with some additional risk of a block depending on how high the defense can get its hands up, but there are a few degrees of angle to play with.

The two block strategies: middle and edge

Special teams coordinators spend a lot of time analyzing specific opponents when deciding what kind of kick block schemes to send in short and long range situations. Figuring out where the strongest and weakest blockers in the protection along the line are, the long snapper and holder tendencies, as well as the kicker’s technique can figure into the game plan. While kick blocking units can employ specially tailored attacks over the tackle or wingback gaps if there are vulnerabilities, the most common block plays are using tall and athletic linemen to jump up in the middle gaps around the long snapper or sending an extremely fast player around on an edge block.

When the kicking team lines up to make a field goal, the ball is most likely spotted on one of the two hash marks:

If the previous play ends between the hash marks, the ball is spotted where that play ended. If the play ends outside the hash marks, the ball is spotted about 1½ yards inside the nearest hash. . . The same hash mark rules apply on field goals, but on extra points it’s the kicker’s choice, and he can put the ball anywhere he wants between the hashes.

Thus a kicker must angle the flight of the ball a little to the left or a little to the right, depending on which has mark the ball is snapped from. If the ball is on the left hash, the kick will go to the right. The defense knows this and can then load up that side of the line to get in the way of the expected flight path of the kick.

2017 Week 12 MIN, 2Q (3:11). Fourth-and-8 at the Detroit 35.

The thing to pay attention to is the center of the line, where 98 DT Jeremiah Ledbetter (6-foot-3) is the only interior lineman left of the holder. From the long snapper outward to the right, we have 91 DT A’Shawn Robinson (6-foot-4), 72 LT Brian Mihalik (6-foot-9), 90 DE Cornelius Washington (6-foot-4), and 59 OLB Tahir Whitehead (6-foot-2) as the four down linemen on that side. The Lions are playing an interior rush to crash the long snapper’s both shoulders up the middle with Ledbetter and Washington to one side and hopefully get A’Shawn a clear jump up the middle to tip a low kick.

On the left edge, 23 CB Darius Slay takes the corner to try and lay out for an edge block. 40 MLB Jarrad Davis rotates over as the safety man to that side in case of a fake. Clearly, though, the design here is to bring pressure from the left side.

As the ball comes off of 2 K Kai Forbath’s foot, Mihalik has cleared a good jump opportunity for A’Shawn, Ledbetter, and Washington. Look at the height that A’Shawn gets in the center of the jump block pile! From the television broadcast angle, the height of the jump block crew in the middle is really apparent:

The kick was actually blocked by Ledbetter’s left hand on the outside of the jump block, but this is a good surge by all of the interior players. One thing to note here is how far Slay has streaked around 82 TE Kyle Rudolph (seen here diving for Slay) on the right edge of the protection.

When the ball is spotted on the right hash mark from the kicker’s point of view, the kick must angle to the left to drill through the center of the uprights, and the defense flips accordingly.

2017 Week 12 MIN, 1Q (5:29). Point After Touchdown attempt.

Basically the same look as before but mirrored: Ledbetter on the long snapper’s right side (our left) and the stack of A’Shawn, Mihalik, CornWash, and Whitehead in the direction of the kick on the long snapper’s left (our right). Again the idea is a middle jump block with A’Shawn using his athleticism to get high enough to tip the ball before it gains enough altitude to clear the line.

As the ball comes off Forbath’s foot, marvel once more at how high A’Shawn Robinson is able to get his body. It really is amazing. From the All-22 angle in the tackle box, we can see just how thoroughly Ledbetter annihilated 47 LS Kevin McDermott off the snap to get A’Shawn a clear block lane:

Note the mirroring also affects the edge block, and this time it is 24 CB Nevin Lawson on the left side of the protection who attempts to take the corner. Although the threat of a fake is much lower on a PAT attempt, the execution is the same and Davis slides over as fake protection that way.

2017 Week 12 MIN, 4Q (1:15). Foruth-and-1 at the Detroit 7.

When the ball is centered between the hash marks, the special teams coordinator will not overload either side and likely send a balanced rush like we see near the end of the Thanksgiving Day game against the Vikings. Instead of Ledbetter alone on one side and a heavy stack on the kick side, there really is no kick angle side and the Lions instead put two interior linemen on each side.

Now, remember how far Slay got around Rudolph on the field goal block by Ledbetter in the second quarter? The Vikings knew they had protection problems up the middle because they had already given up two blocked kicks over the long snapper. It is possible their special teams coaches emphasized middle protection here and asked to center the ball to eliminate the kick angle and overload rush the Lions use.

That made a great block call to use here an edge rush with the second-to-last men on each side of the kick block alignment hitting the inside shoulder of the wingbacks. That gets the wingback stepping and turning inside to help the outside rushers turn the corner faster.

A snap a bit far to the inside on the holder’s side plus a possibly too-early jump by Slay resulted in this called back edge block. Note the technique at the end: the idea is to lay out with your body as wide as possible to become a wall over the ball’s flight path. The edge rusher does not leap into the kicker but times it so he files across the target to take the ball off the foot of the kicker.

Any pressure the kick blocking unit can put on the various parts of the placekicking unit can create problems leading to either misses or blocks. The long snapper might think about trying to get into his blocking set early or absorbing the inside charge and toss a poor snap. The holder might be nervous and try to get the ball down faster instead of on rhythm and turn the laces wrong or hold at a bad angle. The placekicker might try to overcompensate away from the block angle and over-rotate his plant foot or adjust his leg swing. Any number of small factors like this can save points for the defense.

Week 17 opponent: Mason Crosby

Earlier in the season, the Lions managed to record a blocked kick on the road against the Packers in Week 9. Thanks to a bad snap by a newly-signed long snapper, A’Shawn Robinson tipped a low kick by 2 K Mason Crosby in the first quarter.

“That was on me,” said Packers long snapper Derek Hart of the aforementioned play. “I take complete ownership of that. It was just a low snap.”

It was a week of adjustments again for the Packers’ field-goal operation trio coming off a bye week. The team announced Friday that long snapper Taybor Pepper (foot) had been placed on injured reserve. That opened the door for Hart, who was with the team for offseason practices and training camp before being released in favor of longtime snapper Brett Goode for the start of the season. Goode (hamstring) was waived off injured reserve earlier this season after playing in the first three games. He is not eligible to return to the team until after next week's game at Chicago.

2017 Week 9 at GBY, 1Q (6:50). Fourth-and-7 at the Detroit 20.

Facing a kick from the left hash mark, the Lions use the same kind of overloaded alignment we saw earlier from the Thanksgiving Day game: Ledbetter to one side and three linemen to the long snapper’s right (A’Shawn, 99 DT Khyri Thornton instead of Mihalik, and then CornWash). Slay comes off the edge to the overload side and Davis rotates over as fake protection.

Unlike the rushes against Minnesota, the height on the middle jump is not very good. The inside leg bracing in particular is much better by the interior of the Green Bay protection unit.

What sinks this attempt is the snap. The holder 8 P Justin Vogel can be seen taking the ball off the turf on a low snap, and the entire timing of the operation is thrown off:

Crosby hits the ball a little off, possibly too high up the instep of the foot (like 5 K Matt Prater’s miss at Baltimore), and the kick knuckleballs out on a wobbly and blockable flight path. The long snapper the Packers were forced to use in that game was a previously cut rookie who had not worked out well in the preseason. Veteran long snapper 61 LS Brett Goode was re-signed in the middle of November, but even this has not solved all of the Pack’s kicking issues.

2017 Week 12 GBY at PIT, 3Q (4:20). Fourth-and-18 at the Pittsburgh 39.

Another bad snap, this time a high snap by Goode to Vogel instead of a low one in the dirt, resulted in a knuckleballed 57-yard attempt that had absolutely no chance (emphasis added):

“One thing about Mason now [he would say], ‘Put the ball down and let’s kick it,’” Zook added. “If you talk to Mason, he’s got to hit that. You get into a game, where we are in the season, I think if Mason had to do it over again, he’d hit it. The snap was a little high, but, still, Justin [Vogel] got it down there. Shoot, you’ve got to have points and he’s got to hit it.”

Crosby missed badly to the left, giving the Steelers the ball at their own 47-yard line.

Even if the Lions do not come away with a block, can they influence Crosby’s kicks enough to make him miss? Consider two misses that Crosby had against the Lions at Ford Field in 2012.

2012 Week 11 GBY, 2Q (0:03). Second-and-18 at the Detroit 32.

Detroit comes out in a field goal safe look, guarding against the fake and more or less letting Green Bay make the kick attempt. Crosby is kicking from the right hash mark and must angle to the left. Note the interior line overload to that side by Detroit.

In the close up shot from the television broadcast, we can see the technique problem: Crosby’s plant foot is so sharply angled to the left that the kick follows it: “Wherever the plant foot goes, so goes the kick.” The over-rotation results in a miss wide left.

2012 Week 11 GBY, 4Q (8:41). Fourth-and-2 at the Detroit 20.

This time kicking from the left hash mark, he must angle to the right. On the long snapper’s right side is 90 DT Ndamukong Suh, though, the most dangerous athletic big man on the block team. Crosby angles away from Suh, but again over-rotates and misses wide left:

Preparation and effort on the kick blocking unit are important to the success of the team because they can prevent the opponent from putting points on the board. When scouting an opponent like Mason Crosby, the special teams staff pores over tape to determine the best way to add pressure to the kicks. Are some kickers tougher to pressure than others? Absolutely. Over a career spanning 2007 to 2017, Pro Football Reference’s play finder identifies 11 blocked field goal attempts by Crosby out of 344 total attempts. For comparison, Matt Prater has only had 3 of his 293 field goal attempts (and one extra point) blocked over a career spanning the same years as Crosby.

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