The Role of Special Teams in a Football Game

The players in American football who put their foot to the ball are known as specialists, and they’re part of special teams. Although the kickers (including placekickers, punters, and field goal kickers) are integral to special teams, they aren’t the only players on the field during a kick.

When a punter attempts a punt, for example, 21 other players are on the field. The ten remaining men on the punting team have two tough responsibilities:

  • To protect the punter’s kick from being blocked

  • To run down the field and cover the punt

They face ten players who are trying to slow them down, as well as the player who’s catching the punt (the punt returner). The returner is generally one of the fastest runners on a team and a specialist in his own right.

Special teams are so specialized that a single group of players can’t cover every situation. Four special teams units exist:

  • The group of players that handles punts, kickoffs, and punt returns

  • The unit that handles field goal and extra point attempts

  • The group that takes care of kickoff returns

  • The unit that attempts to block field goal and extra point attempts

A key thing to know about special teams is that these 11-man units are typically on the field for about 20 percent of the plays in a football game. But coaches often say that special teams play amounts to one-third of a football game — by that, they mean its total impact on the game.

Take scoring, for example — how games were won and lost in the 2009 NFL regular season:

  • Offenses: Scored 1,140 touchdowns and 24 two-point conversions, or 62 percent of the 11,213 points scored in 256 games.

  • Special teams: Accounted for 3,853 points, or 34 percent of all scoring. Punt and kickoff returners scored only 34 touchdowns, but kickers made 1,165 extra points (worth one point each) and 756 field goals (worth three points each). Special teams also contributed 12 touchdowns when they blocked field goal attempts and ran them in for touchdowns and 24 touchdowns when they blocked punts and ran them in for touchdowns.

  • Defenses: Scored 472 points, or 4 percent of all scoring, by intercepting passes and running for touchdowns (there were 48 interception touchdowns), by scoring safeties (there were 14 safeties, worth two points each), and by recovering fumbles and running for touchdowns (there were 26 fumble-recovery touchdowns).

Another important function of the special teams unit is to maintain good field position and to keep the opposition in bad field position. The main objective of the kickoff, for example, is to pin the opponent as far away from its end zone, and thus a score, as possible. Kickoff coverage teams strive, though, to put the opponent 80 yards or more away from scoring.

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