“We need to be good at all three aspects of the game, offense, defense and special teams.” At one point or another, anybody who has played football has heard a coach preach the benefits of being competitive in all three aspects of the game. No matter how often this is preached, I’d wager a guess that a higher percentage of special teams plays involve blown assignments than offensive or defensive plays.
On Saturday night, Louisiana Lafayette was in position to upset No. 6 Florida in Gainesville because the Ragin’ Cajons successfully blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. Florida eventually came back to tie the game at 20-20, giving the ball back to ULL with less than two minutes remaining. All ULL needed to do was successfully run a two-minute drill, move the ball into field goal range, and hope their special teams would come through in the clutch.
Instead, three plays later the Ragin’ Cajons faced 4th and 3 from their own 34-yard line with just 13 seconds remaining. Instead of relying on special teams to win the game, ULL now needed to rely on special teams to extend the game. A successfully punt could pin the Gators deep and most likely push the game into overtime. A bad punt; well, as ULL would find out, a bad punt would cost them the game.
The moment I saw ULL’s punt formation, I cringed. The Ragin’ Cajons, as well as the Gators, employ the Shield punt formation. Despite the growing popularity of this formation, it is by far the worst punt formation in football.
If you aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the punt, let me provide some basic details. The long snapper is responsible for snapping the ball to the punter who is lined up between 12 and 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The depth of the punter usually depends on the level of play or the location of ball on the field.
Although there are different punt formations, each one utilizes players known as personal protectors who line up between four and six yards behind the line of scrimmage. Their primarily responsibility is to protect the punter and ensure a clean punt.
On punts where the punter is line up 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, the kick often comes off the foot at a point 8 or 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Therefore, for the defensive team, the “block point” is 8 or 9 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The two most commonly used punt formations are the Shield formation (Figure 1) and the Spread formation, or what I like to call the Pocket formation (Figure 2).
Throughout my entire football career, my teams have employed the Pocket punt formation. It wasn’t until my sophomore year at Western that I experienced the Shield formation. It was our first year in the North Central Conference and we were scouting and preparing for St. Cloud State, who punted out of the Shield formation.
In the game, we trailed 17-3 at halftime and in the second half our offensive struggles continues. It was good for us then that a football game involves offense, defense AND special teams. After finally scoring a touchdown with 5:07 to cut the deficit to 17-10, we turned to our special teams to provide the final kick down the homestretch and to create an opportunity to win.
After practicing against the Shield punt formation all week, we knew that if the time came when we needed a block instead of a return we could exploit the holes in St. Cloud St.’s punt formation. We knew that if we could get heavy pressure up the middle on the three personal protectors we could push them back a couple yards and affect the kick. Sure enough, our scouting efforts paid off and we blocked punts on back-to-back possessions. The first resulted in a touchdown a few plays later, the second was returned for a touchdown that won us the game.
As you can see in the diagrams above, in the Shield formation all the players spread out horizontally along the line of scrimmage with three yard splits between players and the three personal protectors five yards behind the line of scrimmage. When the ball is snapped, the blockers on the line of scrimmage are in charge of protecting their gap and then taking off down the field to cover. The personal protectors are responsible for players that rush up the middle.
What happens though if a defensive team lines players up directly in the middle of the 3-foot gap? If the kicking team doesn’t retreat from the line of scrimmage to block the rushers, then the rushers are going to blow right past them unblocked. Then, what happens when the three personal protectors suddenly have five or six rushers to block?
The idea behind the Spread formation is that a defense doesn’t know which players are eligible receivers and therefore which ones will be involved in a fake. In addition, the defense could be susceptible to a rollout fake run by the punter. This all assumes, though, that the kicking team fakes a punt every now and then to force the defense to respect the fake.
The Spread/Pocket formation is different because its goal is to deflect rushers outside and form a pocket from which the punter can kick. With two gunners spread wide right and left, the defensive team has to send at least one person out to defend the gunners because if they don’t, it’s a quick pass from punter to gunner and a successful fake punt. With gunners spread wide and one personal protector, the kicking team has eight players to block eight rushers.
Utilizing a kick-step technique, blockers in the Pocket formation retreat from the line of scrimmage on the snap, blocking players from outside in. You’ll often see players on the kicking team pointing at the defensive players prior to the snap, it’s because they are counting the players and pointing our their responsibilities. By retreating at the snap, the kicking team can better recognize twists and stunts on the line of scrimmage.
The idea behind the pocket punt formation is that no matter from how wide rushers originate, there is still a specific point which they need to reach in order to block the kick. A punter knows his kick should always come from within the pocket approximately 9 yards behind the line of scrimmage. A blocked punt using the pocket formation is often the result of a missed assignment not a schematic problem
Against Louisiana Lafayette, who had not faked a punt all game, Florida applied heavy pressure. ULL had seven players spread across the line of scrimmage while Florida had 10 potential rushers. That means if blocked perfectly, each ULL player would block one Florida rusher.
ULL snapped the ball from the 34, the personal protectors were lined up with toes on the 27 and the punter’s heels were at the 19-yard line. The kick actually comes off the foot at the 23 – 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage – because the punter was rushed due to pressure and yet it still didn’t matter. Florida rushed five and dropped five into coverage and the ULL front line blocked nobody, leaving a five-on-three advantage for the Gators in the backfield.
One of those five rushers came untouched off the line of scrimmage and none of the personal protectors were able to slow his rush. The punt was blocked and the ball fluttered into the air, past the line of scrimmage and into the waiting arms of Jelani Jenkins. Jenkins was one of the five Florida players who dropped back to set up a return and after catching the punt deflection he returned it 34-yards for a game-winning touchdown.
Had ULL, or even Florida earlier in the game, employed the pocket punt formation I can assure you the outcome would’ve been different. Think about it this way, if an offense can’t successfully run the ball, then the defense isn’t going to respect the run game. Therefore when the offense tries a play-action pass, the defense won’t respect the fake and the pass play will fail.
It’s the same with the Shield punt. If a team never runs a fake why would the defense respect the fake? I don’t think it’s any coincidence that you don’t see a single NFL team employ the shield formation. It’s because the Shield formation is the worst and the Pocket formation is the best.
When you watch football this weekend, pay special attention to the punt formations. I guarantee the first blocked punt of the weekend will come from a team who employs the Shield formation.