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Cowboys’ punt-block prowess could force Packers to pick 4th-down poison

Cowboys’ punt-block prowess could force Packers to pick 4th-down poison

There were just six blocked punts in the NFL during the 2023 regular season. The Cowboys were responsible for two of them, and they nearly had a third.

Special teams coordinator John Fassel hopes that will give the Packers just one more thing to think about when punter Daniel Whelan comes on to try to flip the field for Green Bay this Sunday at AT&T Stadium.

“There is a yin and yang on the rush and return, kind of working together,” Fassel told reporters at The Star this week.

Tight end Peyton Hendershot was the beneficiary this past Sunday, busting through the line of scrimmage on a Washington third-quarter fourth-down to block Tress Way’s punt and give the offense possession at the Commanders’ 9-yard-line. Dallas would add their fifth touchdown of the afternoon moments later.

It’s about creating mismatches, obviously. And if the Cowboys’ opponent is too focused on keeping their punter upright by adding a blocker at the line, it could mean giving speedy punt return man KaVontae Turpin extra room to maneuver forty-some yards downfield.

The Packers are already susceptible to a strong return game. Whelan is averaging a lackluster 46.2 yards per punt, a mark that places him 24th in the league. But factor in punt returns, and his per-punt net average drops to 39.4 yards, or 31st place.

So Green Bay will face a real decision on every fourth down.

“Some of those things do open up, potentially, the return game because there’s more of a focus on protection,” Fassel explained. “Having Turp back there, there’s a clearer emphasis on other teams trying to cover, so sometimes that opens up an opportunity to rush.”

Fassel is more than happy to make opponents pick their poison, especially with players on both ends of the equation able to turn any given punt into a huge momentum swing.

“There are some typical known rushers,” Fassel noted of his 2023 crew. “Dorance Armstrong is probably pretty well-known as a rusher. Even Sam [Williams] is well-known. For Peyton to get an opportunity to make a move and get a punt block was fantastic.”

As Fassel points out, Cowboys opponents have more than one capable rusher to contend with. It was Hendershot this past weekend; back in Week 8, it was defensive end Sam Williams, tacking two points onto the scoreboard with his block.

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Williams has developed a knack for the technique this season while playing on over two-thirds of Dallas’s special teams plays. He very nearly recorded a second blocked punt in the Week 15 loss to Buffalo. While he misjudged his leap (he arguably shouldn’t have left his feet at all) and was subsequently called for roughing, he came within inches of a game-changing play.

That miscue came to mind for Fassel on Sunday as he watched Hendershot’s block versus Washington, remembering a similar learning moment the tight end had in 2022.

“Hendershot, last year, we played the Bears,” Fassel recalled. “And it was probably the third quarter. He got cut loose on a punt rush and whiffed, almost like Sam did against Buffalo a couple weeks ago. And that has stuck with myself and Hendershot for, now, over a year. And we worked on how to finish, kind of like we’ve been working on with Sam. It was the exact same thing, you know; Peyton missed his just like Sam missed his. So we work on these things, on how to finish when you get through. So for him to just boom, all of a sudden- it was really a return call with a one-man rush, kind of deja vu. For him to get through and finish, man, that’s sometimes the hardest part.”

The hardest part for Green Bay this coming weekend in the wild-card round may be deciding whether to roll the dice against the electrifying Turpin… or defend against one of the best punt-blocking squads in football.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire