Detroit Lions film review: How special teams unit did what no other has in nearly 30 years

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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The Detroit Lions accomplished something rare Sunday, becoming the first team to block two punts in a game since the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 30, 2014.

Even rarer, the Lions have three punt blocks in their last two games, a feat no team has accomplished since the Dallas Cowboys in 1991.

Lions special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs said last week that the NFL as a whole has averaged about 14 blocked punts a season over the last decade, which makes the Lions’ accomplishment in this otherwise dismal season even more extraordinary.

“Oh yeah, very impressive,” said Austin Bryant, who blocked his first career punt in Sunday’s 34-20 loss to the Vikings. “To get two in the same game, that’s almost unheard of. I think that’s going to be a weapon that we can use going forward in the season, no matter what the situation is in the game, to know we can put a unit out there and potentially change the momentum of a game.”

The Lions’ success on punt rush is due to a combination of things, including Coombs’ creative scheming and aggressive approach, good personnel and a dangerous return man in Jamal Agnew (though he did not play last week) who factors into opponents’ punting plans.

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For this week’s film review, I put the Lions’ blocked punts — which came from three different players rushing from three different spots on the field — under the microscope.

The Miles Killebrew block

Situation: Fourth-and-11 at the Indianapolis 46, 6:29 left in the first quarter.

Score: Lions 0, Colts 0.

Killebrew made headlines because his first career punt block came in his first game after becoming a father, but as he said last week, he had plenty of help from his teammates.

“I never want anyone to think that a blocked punt is just one player doing it,” Killebrew said. “I don’t know if you saw the play, but I had Jahlani (Tavai) on my inside and I had (Jamie Collins) on my outside; we mix around that package a lot. But those two guys got off the ball and made my job a lot easier and I was just the one who happened to be there to make the play.”

Killebrew’s block came on the Indianapolis Colts’ second offensive series, when the Lions almost had a substitution error — which would have been their fourth in the last two weeks — on the play. Jayron Kearse came running off the field just before the snap, then ran back on, leaving the Lions to rush just seven players.

Killebrew was the third player on a four-man overload to the left side of the Lions’ formation. The Colts had four blockers on that side of the line, including personal protector Khari Willis, but when Jarrad Davis rushed from an off-ball linebacker spot, following Romeo Okwara up the middle of the punt formation, Willis slid to his left to block Davis.

That left three Colts — from left to right, Trey Burton, Bobby Okereke and Jordan Willis — to block Tavai, Killebrew and Collins. Willis, the wing protector, picked up Collins, and Okereke stopped Tavai, leaving Burton no one to block and Killebrew a hole to exploit on his way to punter Rigoberto Sanchez.

“As we’re creating pressure for the opponent, it might be designed to hit on one side of the formation, but the way that it breaks down, it might be somebody totally unexpected that comes free,” Coombs said. “So that’s why it’s really important that all 11 guys are out there doing their jobs, got the pedal to the metal, because if you wait until after you realize it might be your opportunity, then it’s too late. It happens too fast. It’s 1.8 seconds, so you’ve got to expect to be the guy every time. Miles did a great job of doing that, and then once he found himself in the position to make the play, making it.”

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Austin Bryant block

The situation: Fourth-and-5 at the Minnesota 33, 3:09 left in the  third quarter.

Score: Vikings 27, Lions 10.

Unlike Killebrew’s block, when the Lions were coming after Sanchez, Bryant’s block came on a play where the Lions were set up for a punt return.

The Lions lined up in a pretty basic six-man line with three rushers on each side of long snapper Austin Cutting. Quintez Cephus, the right end in the Lions’ formation, dropped into a blocking position off the snap, as did Will Harris (from the off-ball spot Davis played a week before), leaving just five rushers.

Okwara, who was the first Lion to the left of Cutting, and fullback Jason Cabinda, the first Lion to the right of the snapper, ran a stunt over the middle, but neither had an impact on Bryant’s block. Simply, Vikings wing protector Mike Boone whiffed on his block, giving Bryant a clear path to punter Britton Colquitt.

“Everybody did their job, I did my job, able to beat my guy and block the punt,” Bryant said. “That’s kind of how it unfolded.”

As simple as the block was, it perhaps set the stage for the Lions’ second block last week, with Bryant noting the domino effect on special teams.

“I think teams see that we have a really good punt return unit that can go get a block, so I think that definitely puts pressure on them to practice that throughout the week, but there’s really no way to simulate us coming on punt returns,” he said. “So I think we just need to keep working it and I think that’ll be a weapon for us going down the rest of the season.”

Romeo Okwara block

Situation: Fourth-and-7 at the Minnesota 42, 7:07 left in the fourth quarter.

Score: Vikings 34, Lions 10.

The Lions’ third block of the season was the result of both a great individual effort by Okwara and a well-designed rush by Coombs.

The Lions put eight players in their rush formation, everyone but jammers Justin Coleman and Mike Ford and return man Danny Amendola, in an effort to create confusion at the line. Killebrew and Cabinda rushed from their spots on the right side of the formation, with Harris and Cephus rushing from the same side out of stand-up positions.

On the left side, Okwara, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Bryant aligned tightly over the right side of the Vikings’ line, with Will Harris in a stand-up position outside of Bryant. Harris, a decoy on the play, stood his ground as three Vikings blockers slid to Reeves-Maybin and Bryant. With Vikings personal protector Ameer Abdullah occupied on the opposite side of the formation trying to help block Harris, Okwara slipped by Cutting and dove to get his left hand on the ball.

“We’ve been working hard at it here all the way from training camp and all of that’s showed itself in the last couple of weeks,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “It’s something we’ve got to keep doing. The punters are so good in this league. They just really are. We’ve seen a couple things where we thought we had a good opportunity to, and I’m glad we capitalized on them, but it changes each week.”

Coombs said last week his philosophy is “creating pressure, moving things around, moving parts around, doing whatever we can to make the opponent perform in a high-pressure situation,” and clearly the Lions have done that the last two weeks.

“Make it as difficult as they can to execute what otherwise is a mundane procedure that they go through 25 times throughout the course of a week in practice,” Coombs said. “So just trying to present different things to create confusion, create the potential for mistakes on their part.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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