In theory, the Bears should be among the least-likely teams to block a punt, even with their traditionally excellent special teams. After all, with all-world punt returner Devin Hester back catching kicks, why on God’s green earth would they do anything but design their returns to assist him?
But even Hester can give way sometimes.
The Bears and Titans were playing a game of hot potato, with the Bears punting twice and the Titans (one fumble, one punt and another one upcoming) doing no better eight minutes into their Week Nine game.
But that was about to change in an instant. A tsunami was coming — at least that’s what a blocked punt often looks and feels like — with a wave of defenders swarming in and ruining everything in its wake.
The Bears already had timed up Titans P Brett Kern’s get-off with his first kick earlier, and all week prior they had seen it on tape: He was slow to kick it.
On the right side, S Craig Steltz and DE Corey Wootton criss-crossed on a stunt, throwing off the Titans’ blocking scheme. The play was designed for either one of them to get closest to the punter on the six-man rush against eight Titans blockers.
"Most of the blocks are not off rushes," Bears assistant special-teams coach Kevin O'Dea said. "They’re off a six-box look, six rushers against eight protectors. Either they let their guard down or you try to get your guys out a little early into coverage, and one guy can get beat. Then you’re in. That's when you can do some damage."
Titans LB Tim Shaw, the left guard on the play and one of the league’s better special-teamers, did his best under the circumstances. He first got a hand on Wootton, then one on Steltz, which was enough (barely) to slow them down.
But around right end, like a ninja, came third-year CB Sherrick McManis. The end man on the line assigned to blocking him, Titans RB Jamie Harper, let McManis go, trying to get upfield to get a bead on tackling the dangerous Hester. McManis bent the edge, angled in and took advantage of the breakdown.
“It wasn’t designed for me (to get the block),” McManis said. “But you can kind of sense you’re going to get to it. And then — ‘thwack!’ — the ball hit my hand hard, and I knew something good happened.”
Wootton picked the ball up amid a scrum and ran it back, Titans draped all over him, for the table-setting score. It helped break open the floodgates for the Bears’ 51-20 victory and highest point total since 1980.
“Ninety percent of the time you have a punt blocked, it’s because someone on the protection team screwed up,” Shaw said. “When it happens, it takes the life out of you. You say to yourself, ‘If we can’t (prevent) that, what can we do?’ ”
You can call it the year of the blocked punt.
There have been 16 this season, already the most in one campaign since 2003. There were a mere nine blocks in the 256 regular-season games in 2011. Except for a brief flurry in ’02 (22 blocked punts) and ’03 (21), the range has been between five and 16 per season going back to the early 1990s.
So what gives?
“To be honest, I have no idea why there are more,” Shaw said. “Maybe teams are not focusing on it as much. Maybe it's (having) less (practice) time with the new CBA rules.
"It’s a bit of a fluky thing. All it takes is one guy to not do his job, and it can happen any Sunday.”
Shaw was on the sunnier side of the block party a few weeks earlier, in Week Six, when he broke free right up the middle to get his hand on the punt of Steelers P Drew Butler in what would be a game-changing turn of events.
“Nothing fancy, nothing new under the sun,” Shaw said. “Just their guy (LS Greg Warren) blocking the wrong guy and letting me come free. At that point, it’s just get up the field, get your hands up and make sure you don’t hit the punter, just the ball.”
Shaw got all ball. The Titans were trailing 10-6 at the time, and the recovered punt had them in business at the Steelers’ 1-yard line. Two plays later, the Titans scored to take the lead in what eventually would be a 26-23 upset victory.
“The kicker’s foot hit me in the face on that one, got me pretty good too,” Shaw said. “But I’ll take that trade-off every time.”
Eight of the 16 blocked punts have been returned for TDs. Of the remaining eight, four ended with the ball inside the opponents’ 8-yard line and seven of the eight subsequent possessions ended in scores for the offense.
In short, they’re huge, tide-shifting plays. No one play wins a game, but a blocked punt is bigger than most.
“A blocked punt, I think, is the biggest game changer there is, especially when it’s returned for a touchdown,” Shaw said. “An interception return is close but not quite the same. (The punt block) takes the wind out of a team’s sails.”
Ask the Patriots. Back in Week Two — in what, retrospectively, is shaping up as the upset of the season — the Cardinals beat the Patriots in New England, spurred by a critical block. Quentin Groves had been close to getting his hands on a Zoltan Mesko punt all game and finally got through on his fifth attempt. Going against rookie S Nate Ebner (playing his second NFL game), Groves ran through him and swatted Mesko’s offering for one of the biggest plays in the seismic win.
“Football is a game of individual matchups,” Groves said. “We had a matchup where I was aligned on a safety. If I don’t win that matchup every time, then something is wrong.
“We tested it, tested it, tested it all game, and I finally got the green light (to go for the block) and got it.”
It gave the Cardinals the ball at the Patriots’ 2-yard line and resulted in a score three plays later, breaking a 9-6 Patriots lead. Although Groves’ block wasn’t returned for a touchdown, it almost was.
“I’d like to know what teams’ winning percentage is when they block a punt and return it for a touchdown,” Shaw said. “I bet it’s pretty good.”
Indeed. Since 2008, the record for teams that return a blocked punt for a TD is 16-9, according to STATS LLC, and teams with any kind of punt block this season are 12-4. Of the 13 teams to give up blocks this season — the Jets, Redskins and Chargers each have been victimized twice — eight have losing records.
Punt blockers come in all shapes and sizes, from the 265-pound Groves to McManis and Green Bay’s Davon House, who check in around 195 pounds. House was the author of one of the season’s most interesting blocks — one that came with only 10 men on the field.
“Yeah, that was a mistake. We wanted to have 11 on the field there,” Packers special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said sheepishly. The Packers struggled offensively in the game against the Jaguars in Week Eight, scoring only 14 points in their first 11 offensive possessions, and needed the boost. The coaches decided to go for the block by rushing eight — one in each gap — with the Jaguars backed up deep in their own zone.
“You have to be careful,” Slocum said. “There are eligible receivers on the punt formation. There’s a consideration of the risk of not covering those receivers. When we blocked the punt for the touchdown, we took that risk and ran off of the gunner and brought our rush.
“Over the years, one of the most effective blocks has been eight guys in eight gaps, they all come and you force everyone on the punt team to block them. Time to time, guys will have a problem in their technique.”
At this rate, there will be about 26 blocked punts. That wouldn’t break the record of 31 in 1977 (according to the Elias Sports Bureau), but it would be the most since then.
Hester said he thinks the punt return for a touchdown is the bigger shock to an opposing team. (Of course he does.) And there have been a number of those (11) so far this season, too. But for Shaw and the dirty workers, most of whom make their living trying either to spring someone else for a big play on special teams or by preventing one, getting their hands on a punt is like touching football's version of the Golden Fleece.
“It’s as great a feeling as there is in sports,” Shaw said. “I can think back to high school, dunking a basketball. A blocked punt is better. It might hurt later, but it’s worth it.”
"I'd never had a block before," Groves said. "Not in college, high school. I've been close twice since (the Week Two block). Now I have an itch for it."
That itch has become infectious around the league. It's become a borderline epidemic.