Monday, August 10, 2009

Punt Protection: Mike Sabock

One of the best speakers on special teams I've heard is Mike Sabock from Western Michigan (formerly Northern Illinois).

Coach Sabock's units have been renowned for being the most efficient and productive units for years.

The following are tidbits and notes from Sabock on utilizing the spread punt package and developing it to a powerful component of your team.

Punt Protection
Using a sound, pro-style combo protection (man conscious / zone concept) with steadfast, unbreakable rules, NIU has been able to remain at the top of the special teams charts for years.

Timing is everything. The get-off time is what's important. A total time of 2.1 seconds (shooting for 2.0 seconds) in this operation requires meticulous attention to detail.

The 14-15 yard long snap to the punter has to be drilled to occur under 0.8 seconds, so that the punter can launch the ball in a total of 1.3 seconds (from the time he catches until the time it leaves his foot).

Some key concepts Sabock believes in to ensure the best execution of these teams is as follows;

  1. Distribute equal practice reps - both the 1's & 2's need equal work in practice. Never rely on just one personnel unit when working technique.
  2. Film Practice - It is important to film both behind and in front of the punt protection setup and review it with your players so that they have a visual understanding of how the unit works and how their technique plays into their execution.
  3. Dependable players - even if these are your BEST athletes, to be involved in protection, the 8 man protection unit must include the most trustworthy and technique-conscious players.
Guards and tackles are obviously the better blockers than tacklers in this unit, as they will be most responsible on impeding interior pressure. Most punt teams are comprised of quick and tough. The personal protector of the punter must be the most vocal leader of the unit as he will be declaring the protection and adjusting for any crisis.

Players align with a shoulder-width stance, with their inside foot up, pointing down field. From here, they should imagine a vertical pole running from their ankle (toes) to their knee, then through their head. This inside-conscious attitude is what sets the next chain of events in motion. This is very similar to a 2 point stance for vertical setting Offensive linemen. The inside hand is placed on the inside knee for balance.

The outside arm is rested on the outside thigh board. With a 1' or more stagger, the weight is placed on the up field big toe.

Guards and tackles are the key protectors, having a 1' split between them. The top of their foot should be even with the center's heels. Players want to be as far off the ball as possible to buy time, but must make sure their heads break the plane of the center's butt. Tackle's will line up their inside toe on their up field foot of the guard. Wings should align an arms length from the tackle's butt. Wings can possibly align 4 yards deep, however, the deeper they are, the more work they have to do.

The personal protector aligns with his toes at 5 yards, directly behind either guard (it doesn't matter which one, irregardless of which foot your punter uses). It is important that the PP is deep enough to be able to see the box ("You can't read a page that is right on your face").

Kick Slide
All players involved in protection use a kick slide retreat to maintain their leverage and delay the rush into the launch point. Players push off the big toe of their inside foot, then reach back with their trail leg. This process is repeated into the retreat. There should be a minimum of 2 kick slides, but ideally 3 before setting in protection. Sabock does offer the option of using the back pedal (inside, outside, inside step retreat), but remarks that not many athletes are capable of this for a consistent result.

When kick sliding, players should have their palms up, with their thumbs in relationship to nipple-height. They will be lunging back in this position using the inside hand to engage and the outside to brake/steer.

Sabock uses 4' long PVC pipes set on the inside foot of the protectors to be used as vertical guides for his players. You can also use yard line or sideline markings on your practice field. From there, it becomes an indoctrination to the mantra,

"Vertical Set
with a Constant Split
Don't leave your man!"

The most important element in vertical setting is to not stray from your lane as it is natural to stagger or deviate from the starting point.

This protection allows 8 guys to block 8 guys. Provided your gunners are covered and there is a returner, that is the most the defense can send.

The wing will be looking to intercept the 1st rusher from the outside as he vertically sets.
The tackle has #2 (from the outside).
The guard has #3 (from the outside).
The long snapper will protect based on the call, but on anything less than an 8 man rush, he will free release.

Again, the main point is;

  1. Vertical Set
  2. (Keep your) Constant Split (don't extend the distance from your teammates)
  3. (now think about) Block Your Man
All protectors will be setting a depth of 5 yards, providing the launch point (10 yards from the ball spot) a 5 yard cushion.

On every play, the tackle HAS to physically point out the #3 rusher and not assume anything. If #3 is shading any part of the tackle, he must point #3 out and communicate that to the guard by making an "OUT" call. The "OUT" call tells the guard that his guy is outside the tackle (this doesn't affect the center).

The long snapper essentially just has to worry about getting a great snap off to set everything in motion. Without a good snap it all goes to hell pretty fast. Therefore, all the long snapper's post-snap decisions are made by the personal protector.

The personal protector will ensure all protectors are aligned correctly (and that there are enough) then declare the front. If there are less than 8 rushers, the PP declares "ZERO" front, telling the center that all rushers are accounted for and he has a free release.

If there are 8 rushers, the PP will declare "EVEN" meaning that the front has an even number of rushers on either side of the snapper (there is a #4 on both sides of the snapper). With an "EVEN" call, the PP will declare a side he will work, and cal ll the opposite (to tell the snapper where to work). On an "EVEN RIGHT" call from the PP, the PP will work left, so the snapper must work to his right and hold up any inside pressure from that side.

If there are 5 rushers on either side of the snapper, now you are facing an overload. The PP will declare an "OVERLOAD" call and the direction it is coming from. In the example below, an "OVERLOAD RIGHT" call. This tells the snapper to work right, and stay right. The PP will pick up #5 and any inside trash that may spill (he just has to close any open space). The snapper should retreat at a 45 degree angle to catch up with the guards' vertical set.

There is no snap count. The snapper will deliver the ball to the punter whenever both are ready. The snapper should look to snap about a second after the front call is made.

a front view of the protection. Notice the vertical plane of the players in their stance, parallel shoulders, and the narrow split.

from behind, the rushing threats can be clearly identified and the personnel protector is in a good vantage to see all possible threats.

In the sequence, you can see the vertical set and the natural progression of pursuit dispersion (fanning out) once the players have reached their protection point (1,2,3 steps) which times up perfectly with the punt.

** Ironically, here is Western Michigan special teams teaching video taken about the same time these notes from Sabock were taken (when he was at NIU)

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