Its not a stretch to say that the New Orleans Saints are the most complete team in the NFL currently. The offense may have slowed down from what we’re used to seeing with Drew Brees running the show, but the genius of Sean Payton combined with solid play from the offensive line and Michael Thomas this unit has remained steady enough to beat some tough opponents.
Meanwhile the defense has been the crown jewel of this team, which for a Saints team in the Payton era is unheard of. The unit has had stellar play from all three levels and Seth Galina recently wrote an article on this subject.
One can’t forget about the special teams unit, especially when they are playing at such an elite level. The unit feeds off of the great third down efficiency of the defense having returned a NFL high 20 punts and league leading 196 return yards.
The more an opponent punts, the more opportunity the return team has to block one. The Saints were able to do just that against the Chicago Bears, blocking one and tipping another one that resulted in a poor punt.
But what exactly causes blocked punts other than the obvious answer of a player running free and diving at the ball? A lot of it comes down to film study and preparation, just like the other two units on the team.
If a coordinator sees certain tendencies by the blocking unit they can scheme up ways to get a numbers advantage and create confusion that results in botched punts.
At the beginning of the first quarter, the Saints defense forces the Bears to punt from their own 27-yard line after a 3 and out. Chicago’s punt unit will lineup in a “spread punt” formation. This means you have two gunners on the outside, two wing players slightly behind the tackles, one “personal protector” (#36), and five lineman (who are not actual offensive lineman, but rather a combination of tight ends and linebackers and the long snapper).
In the video you can see that the Bears have four players to the left of the long snapper and three to the right. The two defenders on the right over #82 and #45 of the Bears will slant their rush towards the left, attacking both A-gaps. J.T. Gray will lineup on the left, but will loop behind the slant and attack the right B-gap.
By crossing the face of the lineman the slant by Carl Granderson and Justin Hardee Sr. will force both the long snapper and guard (#82) to slide their blocks to the left. The two defenders on the outside (Demario Davis and Craig Robertson) will both rush the punter and force #45 and #25 to pick them up one-on-one.
The Saints now have a numbers advantage, as the Bears have four players attempting to block five rushers. With the guard and long snapper protecting the A-gaps and the two outside blockers covering Davis and Robertson, Gray is able to slip through the unprotected B-gap untouched and blocks the punt.
While that was clearly the most exciting part of the play, Bears’ punter Pat O’Donnell makes a smart decision that prevents the Saints from scoring a touchdown here. Both O’Donnell and Gray will quickly get off the ground and scramble towards the loose ball, both diving for it in the endzone. Unfortunately Gray is unable to secure the ball and has it bounce out from under him as he tries to corral it. O’Donnell sees it come out, and with only one hand available he makes the decision to illegally bat the ball out of the back of the endzone.
Even though this is a penalty that directly resulted in a safety and 2 points for the Saints, O’Donnell makes a smart decision. Even if he comes up with the loose ball it would still result in a safety, but if one of the Saints were able to recover the ball it would have been a touchdown. By knocking it out of play the Saints are unable to secure it and only results in the 2 points.
Teams don’t typically run a punt block scheme on every punt. By doing it just enough and making it appear as if they are attempting a block the coverage unit can create confusion and force a bad snap, botched handling of the snap, or even a mental error when it comes to blocking assignments.
On the tipped punt by fullback Zach Line the team does just enough to throw off the blocking by the punt unit.
Initially lined up with six defenders on the line the unit motions in Hardee and Saquon Hampton giving the Saints eight players on the line that could rush the punter.
This forces the personal protector (#36) to shift over to his left and also forces the wings on the Bears line to widen when the ball is snapped in order to block the defenders on the edge. The long snapper will pick up his block to the left and the personal protector will block the A-gap on the right. Even though the Bears have the numbers advantage of 8 to 6, Line is able to get a one-on-one with the personal protector who weighs 30 pounds less than the fullback. Using his own version of a bull rush Line overpowers #36, and is able to extend his hands to get a small piece of the ball resulting in only a 34 yard punt.
It takes solid play from all three units of the team to win games, but special teams could prove to be the difference maker come playoff time.
Currently the San Francisco 49ers appear to be one of the biggest threats to the team in the NFC, ranking 15th and 2nd in offense and defense respectively, per Football Outsiders. Their special teams unit ranks 24th currently and could prove to be a deciding factor in games down the stretch for them, especially if they have to face the Saints in January.