FOXBOROUGH — The task is to burst through a gap, or around the edge, and aim for a spot just barely removed from where a punter’s foot will meet the ball. The angle taken to that spot must be precise, since missing only slightly can lead to a costly penalty.
This is the art of blocking punts, and however long each week you think the Patriots spend perfecting it, it’s probably more.
“A lot more,” according to special teams captain Matthew Slater.
There have been eight blocked punts in the NFL this season. The Patriots have three of them. Each netted 7 points; two were returned for touchdowns and one, last Sunday against Dallas, gave Tom Brady and the offense a short field and they needed only two plays to traverse into the end zone.
It was Slater who blocked that punt that set up the touchdown against the Cowboys, and the play proved his point about how much planning and practice is necessary to set up those moments.
The call was for Slater to rush at the left side of the Cowboys’ line and try to block the punt as it came off punter Chris Jones’s left foot. Bill Belichick explained on his weekly film breakdown with Scott Zolak that weather was a factor in setting up the play. The wind was blowing across the field, from right to left from the punter’s perspective. The Patriots wanted to send the rush at Jones’s left because it would leave him with only bad options: punt into the wind, or into the rush.
Jones chose to punt with the wind but into the rush. Since Jones is left-footed, Slater was that much closer to the spot where Jones’s foot would meet the ball since he was coming from that side, too. Thanks to Jonathan Jones and Shilique Calhoun occupying blockers, Slater burst through his gap and had an open path to Jones.
If that sounds like the end of the play, though, it’s just the beginning. In that moment, Slater had to choose what angle to take at Jones, one fundamental of punt blocking he said he and the other core special-teamers work on every day. The angle can take him across the punter’s body or keep him on the side he’s coming from, but it must lead him to the spot where cleat will meet ball without leading him into the punter, thus risking a penalty. There’s a no-tolerance policy for taking bad angles at the punter in Foxborough.
“If you take the wrong angle and you miss the ball and hit the punter then, to me, you’ve taken the wrong angle. That’s wrong even if you get the ball, you still shouldn’t be on that course,” Belichick said in his WEEI radio appearance Monday. “You should be on a course that takes you either behind or in front of where the punter contacts the ball and if you don’t take that angle then it’s just a matter of time before you get a roughing-the-punter penalty.”
This is important, because the NFL rulebook tells officials that “when in doubt, it is a foul for roughing the kicker.” The rule is that no defensive player can make contact with the plant leg of the kicker while his kicking leg is still in the air, or with the kicker in general when both feet are on the ground. Players rushing in these situations know that anything borderline is supposed to go to the punter and would cost their team 15 yards and result in a first down.
Selecting the angle is not just about where an oncoming rusher chooses to put his body. It’s also about where he’s going to put his hands as he tries to get them on the ball. Certain angles might lead him to go for the ball with both hands; others might mean he’s better served swatting at the ball with one outstretched arm.
When Slater was rushing Jones, he stayed to Jones’s left and got the ball with just one hand. He was never in danger of contacting the punter’s legs.
“A lot of it is a feel thing,” Slater said. “We work and drill those situations and then when your body gets in that you have to rely on that preparation. Hopefully you stay to that foot side or you cross the body or whatever it may be.”
Hand placement factors into another fundamental of punt blocking the Patriots emphasize: The blocker is always supposed to go down to the ball and get hands on it close to the ground. There are plays in which an opportunity will present itself for a player to try to bat a ball down, but those are unplanned.
“Once you try to reach for the ball up here,” Slater said, putting a hand at shoulder height, “the chances of you getting a hand on it go down significantly. Ideally you want to take it off his foot. I think the more the ball travels away from his foot, the less likely you are to get a hand on it.”
This is one coaching point the Patriots staff harps on that players think might be enforced more loosely elsewhere.
“Most guys do this,” said J.C. Jackson, performing a Dikembe Mutombo-esque swatting motion. “But you’ve just got to go down. Hands down, eyes up, and you won’t miss it.”
Jackson had another of the Patriots’ blocked punts this year when he came around the edge to swat one against the Bills that Slater returned for a touchdown. Brandon Bolden blocked the third against the Giants, though that play was less-designed — Bolden pushed linebacker Nate Stupar back to the point that Riley Dixon’s punt bounced off the back of Stupar’s helmet. It wound up in the arms of Chase Winovich, who returned it for a touchdown.
The benefits of blocked punts go beyond field position and points, since they give opposing coaches more to think about with every punt that comes after one gets blocked.
“You’d better cover that, or you’re not really doing a good job of coaching the team,” said Texans coach Bill O’Brien, whose team faces the Patriots on Sunday night.
The Patriots will take any blocked punt they can get, but while some, such as Bolden’s, are a bit more random, most, such as Slater’s and Jackson’s, are carefully schemed.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.