Special teams is usually the most forgotten aspect of football. Perhaps it is because special teams players are often obscure kickers and second string players.
Perhaps it is because these units are not on the field as much as the offensive and defensive units. But special teams often represents some of the most pivotal plays of the game.
Coaches don’t forget them as much as fans do. Coaching great Jimmy Johnson used to say that you needed to win 2 of 3 phases of a game to win the game: offense, defense and special teams. This put the special teams on the same level as the game’s more prominent units.
Play is initiated by kickoff, at the beginning of both halves and after each score. In the case of the after-score kickoff, the scoring team kicks to their opponent.
This is in many ways the most violent aspect of football, because players spring the longest distance before crashing into one another. Kickoff return duties are considered one of the most dangerous assignments on the football field.
The kickoff begins at a team’s 30 yard line in American football. The kicker tries to kick the ball all the way to the opponent’s end zone, though this is not always the case.
The defense on the kickoff sends its other ten players sprinting down the field. Each of them is assigned a lane to fill, so that no gaping holes appear on the field. As the kickoff return team fields the ball and moves upfield, these players begin to converge on the ball carrier, all the while maintaining some semblance of their defensive lanes.
The outside man on either of the field has containment, meaning he should never let the ball carrier get outside of him, towards the boundary line.
The receiving unit tries to form either a wedge or a wall, creating a running lane for the player. The wedge is formed in the middle of the field, blasting a hole in the defenders’ alignment. The wall creates a lane on one side of the field or other.
The Onside Kick
A kicking team can attempt an onside kick. The ball must travel ten yards from the spot of kick, before the kicking team can recover it. Therefore, a kicker can try to kick the ball in such a way that it pops up, giving his unit a chance to recover it.
This is seldom used in the course of a game. At the end of a game, when a team must have the ball back but doesn’t have the time to force a punt, onside kicks become quite common. The success rate of these are very low, and it tends to be a desperation move.
The Squib Kick
Squib kicks are kicked low and bounce along the ground in a haphazard fashion. The squib is used when the kickoff team does not want to set up in a standard runback alignment. This might be done against a particularly dangerous kick returner, or more likely at the end of the game when field position is of no consequence, and a team wants to avoid the danger of a touchdown runback.
The Fair Catch
A fair catch is called when a returner does not want to run back the kickoff. This usually is done when the defensive team is too near the kick returner for a safe return, or less commonly when weather or other factors make the safer fair catch advisable. A fair catch is signalled by the returning waving his hand over his head while waiting for the ball. Fair catches also can be called on a punt return.
Offensive series in American football require a team to make ten yards in four plays, or the ball goes over to the opposing team. A team has the option of kicking the ball to the opponent, called punting, on any of these four plays. The standard procedure is to try to gain 10 yards on the first three downs and, if this is not accomplished, to punt the ball on 4th down.
The ball is snapped directly to the punter, who stands approximately 7 to 10 yards behind the snapper. He then must drop-kick the ball, tending to kick it 40 or more yards down the field. A successful punt helps a team maintain a field position advantage.
When punting into a short field, a punter must be aware not to kick the ball into the end zone. If this happens, the ball is brought out to the twenty yard line. The punter might attempt several ways of keeping the ball out of the end zone.
The most common way is to kick the ball very high, producing "hang time", which allows the punter’s team mates time to get downfield and catch the ball.
Another method is to kick the ball towards the sideline, so that the ball goes out of bounds close to the goal line. This was once a common method, but is out of fashion these days. Some commentators bemoan the lack of skill in punters who can perform this type of punt.
A third means is to spin the ball, so that it hits and does not bounce into the end zone. This is the least common method because it is the hardest to perform.
Receiving teams can attempt to block a punt. This is difficult to do, and are usually not possible, unless the punting team botches the snap or the punter does not catch the ball quickly enough. Sometimes, receiving teams will try to overload one side of the line, free one particular player to get towards the punter more quickly.
The Field Goal
Field goals are often the most pivotal play on special teams. When an offense drives close to the end zone but cannot score a touchdown, the offensive team will send their field goal unit on the field.
A field goal is when a team kicks the ball through the upright poles on either end of the field. If this is successfully done, the team scores three points.
For a field goal to happen, the ball must be snapped to the holder, who usually kneels seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. As the holder holds the ball, the field goal kicker kicks the ball towards the goal posts.
Of course, the defensive team can attempt to rush towards the field goal kicker to block the attempt. The remaining offensive players are employed in blocking for the attempt, while all eleven defenders try to block the field goal.
Due to the length of the end zone (10 yards) and the distance of the snap (usually 7 yards), you can tell how long a field goal attempt will be by adding 17 yards to the yard line where the ball rests. Therefore, if a ball is being snapped from the 25 yard line, a field goal attempt will be from 42 yards out.
The Extra Point
After a touchdown is scored, teams can attempt an extra point. This is simply a field goal attempt from the two yard line, so that the extra point try is essentially a 19 yard field goal.
This sort of extra point is worth one extra point and is considered virtually automatic. Teams also can opt to go for a two point conversion, but this requires the offensive unit to try to score a touchdown from the two yard line, and is not considered a special teams play. This conversion attempt has a much lower percentage of success.