Stedman Bailey’s astonishing 90-yard punt return for a touchdown last Sunday left the Seahawks and the entire football community in sheer amazement.
Ex-NFL linebacker and special teams athlete Brady Poppinga delves into the coach’s tape to provide a unique perspective on the guidelines followed by the coverage players, which ultimately culminated in this highly unconventional event.
Last Sunday, following a fourth-down stand at midfield, the Seattle Seahawks made the strategic choice to punt the football.
The Seahawks’ right-footed punter, John Ryan, boasts remarkable leg strength. In this particular part of the field, Ryan employs what’s known as an ‘Australian-style’ punt.
The essence of this technique lies in the ball’s trajectory after leaving his foot – it rotates backward towards the punter, akin to a kickoff.
This unconventional punt’s purpose is to permit a full swing of the leg while ensuring that the ball doesn’t travel an excessive distance.
Furthermore, the backward rotation enhances the likelihood of the ball bouncing back toward the punt team, often coming to a halt between the 5 to 10-yard line.
This effectively pins the opposing team deep into their territory, a feat less likely with standard punts that typically bound forward.
Throughout the season, John Ryan’s Australian-style punts consistently displayed a propensity for veering toward the punt team’s left side, which corresponded to the return team’s right.
In their meticulous film study leading up to the game, Jeff Fisher and his special teams coach, John Fassel, discerned this distinctive tendency.
They placed such a significant emphasis on this observation that they shared their intentions with the broadcast crew in advance – they were planning something extraordinary in response to this recurring pattern.
True to their strategy, with the Seahawks now facing a fourth down at their 49-yard line, the situation was perfect for the Seattle Seahawks’ punt team to execute the Australian punt.
The Rams, anticipating this move, decided to introduce a trick play. Tavon Austin, the Rams’ primary punt returner, positioned himself to the right of the punt team and feigned an attempt to catch the punt.
This clever ruse successfully drew the attention of all members of the punt cover team. Simultaneously, on the opposite side of the field,
Stedman Bailey commenced as a vice blocker, responsible for press coverage against the punt team’s gunners.
He then deftly abandoned his blocking role to field the punt. It’s worth noting that having a non-deep player field a punt in the NFL or at any level of football for that matter, is an exceedingly rare occurrence.
Surprisingly, the plan unfolded precisely as St. Louis had envisioned, setting the stage for a truly unique play.
The entire Seattle Seahawks punt team shifted their focus to the right side of the field, converging on the deep returner, Tavon Austin, as he awaited the punt (as captured in a screenshot).
Mirroring John Ryan’s pattern from his previous Australian punt attempts, the ball curved toward the left side of the field, contrary to the returner’s anticipated alignment.
Seizing this opportunity, Stedman Bailey adeptly tracked the ball’s path, akin to a baseball outfielder, and fielded it without arousing suspicion among the unsuspecting Seahawks, who had anticipated the punt going right instead of left.
By the time they did, it was too late.
The burning question on viewers’ minds is why the Seattle Seahawks’ coverage team charged toward Tavon Austin rather than keeping their eyes on the punt’s trajectory.
The answer to this puzzle is surprisingly straightforward:
In the realm of punt coverage, an unwritten rule mandates never looking up to trace the punt’s course until the punt returner either signals for a fair catch or secures the ball for a return.
The reason behind this convention is rather pragmatic. When you gaze to the heavens, you become an easy target for the player assigned to block you, who can deliver a powerful hit by driving his forehead beneath your chin as you peer skyward.
For coverage players, getting caught staring at the sky is not just agonizing but also mortifying, in direct opposition to the teachings of their coaches.
To mitigate this challenge, punt teams typically make a pre-punt call, deciding on the direction before the snap so that everyone is on the same page regarding where the punter intends to send the ball.
The punter must follow through and kick it toward the call, or else the calamity witnessed in this play can occur.
It remains uncertain whether John Ryan punted the ball contrary to the designated direction or directed it precisely where he intended, causing the punt team to align themselves towards the lone figure who appeared to be the returner.
In any case, John Ryan and his Seahawks teammates were not in sync.
The consequence was a pivotal punt return for a touchdown. Credit is due to Jeff Fisher and special teams coach John Fassel for discerning this pattern and grasping the common techniques taught to punt coverage units.
The cardinal principle here is to rely on the punt returner to locate the ball – he will either catch it or signal for a fair catch.
This remarkable play by the St. Louis Rams is bound to prompt special teams coverage units to reevaluate their rules.
This momentous event may not have been just a game-changer for the Rams on that particular Sunday but a catalyst for an evolution in how punt coverage is executed throughout the NFL.