New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is usually tight-lipped during press conferences, unless he is asked the right questions. Those are usually limited to discussing the 1980s and 1990s New York Giants, how football has changed since the 1950s, and special teams.
Belichick loves talking about special teams.
On Friday, Belichick was happy to say 690 words about the role of the punt protector since Nate Ebner, the Patriots punt protector, was placed on the injured reserve and Jordan Richards ascended into the job.
“Yeah, that’s one of the toughest spots to play,” Belichick said. “It doesn’t come up every play. I’m not saying it’s – it’s kind of like playing quarterback, but you play quarterback for, call it 60 plays a game, 70 plays a game. You only punt five to 10 times, let’s call it – somewhere in there. But, there’s a lot of different variables.
“You know, if it’s eight-on-eight, then it’s getting the right eight-on-eight. Now, if you split your gunners out and a guy comes in from the outside, now they have nine-on-eight, and that creates some problems. You also want to try to be able to maximize your coverage, so let’s say there’s only six guys rushing and you have eight blockers, right – seven plus the personal protector. If you can block those six with six and then have two free guys going to the ball, particularly if it’s the two guys that are your best coverage players or two of your best coverage players, there’s some strategy there, too.
“So, identifying the rush, identifying the return – sometimes you can tell what the return is based on the way they align – or if there’s a double team on the gunner or not a double team on the gunner, a lot of times the wind plays into that. Sometimes the situation plays into it.
“Teams that like field returns are bound to return in certain situations, or middle returns in certain situations, like plus-50, things like that. So, there are a lot of variables there, but a good personal protector takes all those into consideration, just like a quarterback does, and A, protect the punter, B, he’s the last line of defense.
“So, a lot of times, even if your protection is not right on the front, if that guy gets the right guy and does the right thing, you still could possibly save a blocked punt by just him doing the right thing, even though somebody else has made a mistake in the front of it.
“So, that decision making is a key part of it there, and the whole cadence and communication between the snapper, the punter and the gunners if we directional punt – if we’re trying to punt the ball one way or the other, making sure that everybody knows where that is and if it changes, which sometimes it does based on the look that they give you.
“So, there’s a lot of different things that go in there. It’s not an easy job at all if you want to do it right and get the most out of it. So, we’ve had a number of guys do that – Pat [Chung]’s done it for us, Jordan’s [Richards] done it for us, obviously Nate did a great job of it. Those guys all meet together and work together, just like the quarterbacks do. They all learn the same things so that they all understand what the options are, and what’s a good option against one team might be a bad option against another team. It frequently is.
“We wouldn’t always necessarily do it by the book. It would depend on what the look was and who the people are on the other side of the ball, who we’re facing. So, the plus-50 punting game where they leave their defense on the field and don’t put a punt return team out there, that creates a whole other set of problems that you have to deal with on the punt team.
“The size and the type of player that’s rushing is a lot different than, a lot of times, the player that’s on the punt return team and the rushers they would use would be different. So, that creates another element of it, too.
“A lot goes into that position. It’s a tough position to play, as I said. I’m not trying to say it’s like playing quarterback. You don’t do it 70 times a game, but the times you do it, it could be a team like Buffalo that gives you some different looks, Miami that gives you a lot of different looks. It’s challenging.”
Whew. What did Belichick actually say here? To paraphrase:
“The punt protector has a complicated job where they’re kind of like the quarterback of the punt unit and have to call out protections and make sure everyone is in the right position.”
That’s kind of what he said, with some numbers about how many players might rush the punter. I’m glad that Belichick feels comfortable about sharing his thoughts on the punt game.
Next, I’d love to hear his opinion on how the rule change about the wedge has affected the kick return game.