Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Anatomy of a Blocked Punt

Since I’m no Johnny Knoxville, I can’t go over the finer points of returning a punt. 

What I can do, however, is go over the key play in Sunday night’s game and analyze how the Jets ended up blocking Matt McBriar's punt and tying the game.

In order to understand how Joe McKnight ended with a clear path to the punter, it’s first necessary for us to look back at the Cowboys’ first four punts of the game. The wise old wizard, Mike Westhoff, didn’t call for any exotic kinds of punt block schemes. Instead, he stayed fairly conservative and attempted to set up returns. On the Cowboys first punt (top left), the Jets only used one defender on each gunner, and had Nick Bellore  (#54) stay well behind the line of scrimmage to guard against a fake. On the Cowboys’ second punt, (top right) the Jets used a total of three defenders for two gunners and had Brodney pool lined up behind the LOS.  On the third Cowboys’ punt, the Jets used a total of four defenders for two gunners, which made it abundantly clear that the Jets weren’t going to rush the punter. On the Cowboys’ fourth punt, the Jets used three  defenders for two gunners and had Bellore well behind the line of scrimmage. Sorry that the picture isn't the best, but punts that don't get blocked or returned for touchdowns are pretty boring

See, they're boring.

With 5:08 left in the game, Mike Westhoff clearly decided that he needed to force the Cowboys’ hand. The way he went about doing this is fascinating and illustrated just how tiny the difference between winning and losing in the NFL can be. 

As you can see from the picture below, the Jets only had two defenders for the two gunners on the field, and had eight men at or near the line of scrimmage, which matched up with the Cowboys eight blockers. You’ll also note that the Jets appear to have gotten a great jump on the snap because they’re all moving while the Cowboys are acting like a Patriots fan planning a playoff victory party any time in the last three years, and simply waiting. While the Jets got a good break on the snap, that alone shouldn’t have been enough to block a punt. In theory, the Cowboys had enough blockers to match up with potential rushers, but know what else is only a theory? That’s right, gravity. 

You’ll notice that I said the Jets had eight men at or near the line of scrimmage because the eighth man in the box was actually a yard or two behind the line of scrimmage. For those of you with sharp eyes, you might notice that the Jet not directly on the LOS is #25, Joe McKnight. Now, I know what you’re thinking: isn’t he the guy who blocked the punt? To quote Omar Little...

To see how that happened, let’s look a little deeper.  On the Cowboys previous four punts, the Jets defender not directly on the line of scrimmage had stayed several yards back during the punt, so the Cowboys’ blockers clearly assumed that the Jets would use a similar scheme. As a result, they probably considered McKnight to be the least threatening of the rushers. WHOOPS!

As you can see from this picture, the Jets didn’t send all eight available defenders to rush the punter. Instead, they had Nick Bellore drop back from the LOS and stand a few yards back during the (attempted) punt. Why would Westhoff call for that scheme? Let’s dig a little deeper. As we dig, take note of the gaping hole that Joe McKnight is running through as Nick Bellore (circled in red) just stands and watches, and wonder how that could happen.

Are you wondering yet?

When blocking for a punt, blockers are taught to block an area, and not a specific person, and they are taught to block from the inside out. This makes logical sense, because the inside rushers have a much shorter path to the kicker or punter, and an untouched interior rusher almost guarantees a blocked kick, as the Cowboys would find out in milliseconds, but you can find out whenever you finish this paragraph.

When you look at the picture below, you get a great illustration of how Joe McKnight (circled in red) came through the line unblocked. It turns out that Nick Bellore (blue arrow) did not immediately drop back into his coverage role. Instead, he took a hard step or two towards the punter. By rushing for this split second, he forced number 57 (don’t want to look up his name, he’s not a Jet) to block him. Numbers 89 and 91 for the Cowboys are double teaming Garrett McIntyre, who’s doing a great job of occupying them both. Remember, the Cowboys blockers are assigned to block an area, and not a person. 

He doesn't know his punt is about to be blocked!

Because McKnight lined up a yard behind the LOS, he delayed his rush by a fraction of a second. The Cowboys didn’t expect him to rush, and their blockers were forced to react instantaneously. As a result, numbers 89 and 91 blocked the person who was in their immediate vicinity, who happened to be Garrett McIntyre. Had Nick Bellore not sold his rush, numbers 57 and 91 would have shifted to the right to occupy McIntyre, and number 89 would have had no one to block, until he saw Joe McKnight rushing at him.

Instead, as we can see thanks to the awesome reverse angle, the smallest delay was all that McKnight needed. As the Cowboys blockers committed to their areas, McKnight (red circle) made his move and, with a full head of steam, ran through the gaping hole that was left for him. You can even see #89 on the Cowboys realizing his mistake, and realizing that he’s too late to do anything about it except for sticking out his right arm and hoping for an act of God, while Nick Bellore (blue arrow) probably cries to himself that no one but an obscure blogger would realize his contributions to the play.

And now, we can see how Westhoff’s machinations ended up working out. Bellore (blue arrow) abandoned his fake rush and had the best view in the stadium to watch McKnight (circled in red) run past the adorably flailing #89 on the Cowboys and block the punt and play a major role in the Jets’ victory. This was one of the few times when the play that the coaches drew up works to perfection, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Although the Cowboys could have foiled the Jets’ attempt to block the punt with better execution, Westhoff’s creativity gave the Jets a vital edge, and all they needed was a split second of indecision to take advantage.


  1. This is great, but does not touch on McKnight's comments that the play was designed to free up Smith and that he was expecting to face two blockers. What happened to Smith on the play?

  2. Thanks Iain. My only guess is that Smith lined up all the way on the right, and if you look, the 4 rushers right of McKnight (to McKnight's left) are occupied by 4 blockers. Maybe if McKnight had rushed on the snap, he would have forced someone on the right side to block him, and Smith would have been left unblocked since he would have been considered the least threatening rusher. Again, that's just my guess but it seems logical.