Eric is a lifelong fan of NFL football who has followed the game for over 40 years.
What Are Special Teams in NFL Football?
When we talk about special teams in the NFL, we are referring to the the units involved in kicking plays. Another way to look at it is that special teams are any unit that is not the offense or the defense.
When you think of the greatest NFL players in the league today, odds are you’re thinking about a quarterback, running back, or wide receiver. Maybe, if you are an especially perceptive fan, you consider a few defensive players in the mix. However, special teams in the NFL are just as important, and these players can make the difference between a win and a loss.
Teams hire dedicated coaches and specialist players and spend hours in meetings and film sessions every week planning what happens when the offense or defense isn’t on the field.
This article will explain the basics of special teams play in the NFL and American football so you can make sense of what you are seeing on the field every Sunday.
Who Plays on Special Teams in Football?
Key special teams players in NFL football include:
- Long Snapper
- Kick Returner
- Punt Returner
- Personal Protector
Almost any player on an NFL roster may contribute to special teams. NFL teams can carry a maximum of 53 players on their active rosters, but may only dress 46 for a game. There is no deep bench like in college football. That means most players get on the field during a game, and those who aren’t playing a lot on offense or defense will need to contribute on special teams.
Starters and star players might fill in on special teams as well. The only player on an NFL roster who is usually off-limits as a special teams player is the starting quarterback. Even backup quarterbacks have been known to take the field on special teams, though it is not common.
Special Teams Players in the NFL
Here is a breakdown of the most important roles on special teams:
Kicks field goals and extra points. Usually kicks off, but not always. Occasionally, a punter with a strong leg will handle kickoff duties. The kicker is arguably the most important special teams player, and he is usually the team’s leading scorer. A reliable kicker who comes through in the clutch has won many an NFL game.
Punts, and usually holds for field goals. A good punter can pin the opposing offense deep in their own territory and help sway the momentum of the game. Especially in games that turn out to be defensive struggles, a good punter can mean the difference between victory or defeat.
This is a specialist who does nothing but snap for field goals, extra points, and punts. By hiring a dedicated player in this position, a team ensures they have a skilled man on the field in crucial situations, as well as a player who has the time during the week to work with the punter and kicker.
In the NFL, the player who holds for field goals and extra points is usually the punter. In the past, teams would often choose a backup quarterback, tight end, or wide receiver as the holder. Today, there are some important reasons punters hold for field goals, and he is the best choice for the role.
Gunners are members of the punting unit. They split out like wide receivers, and it is their job to get down the field as fast as possible to make a tackle. The punt return team will assign one or more players to stop them, and the battles between these players are among the fiercest in a football game.
These players are part of the punting team. It is their job to pick up any rushers who make it through the line and block them before they reach the punter. They also play a leadership role on the punt team, ensuring personnel is correct, calling out blocking assignments, and even calling the snap count.
Pro Bowl Special Teamers
There is a Pro Bowl spot just for special teamers. The man who earns this honor distinguishes himself on punt and kick coverage, and he is often the special teams captain on his team.
Special Teams Units in the NFL
Here are the special teams units you'll see in an NFL game:
There have been a few changes to the NFL’s kick coverage rules over recent years, but the idea remains the same. The kicker’s job is to boot the ball downfield, while 10 guys run down looking to make a tackle. In reality, this is one of the most violent plays in football. You can imagine the collisions that can occur when men weighing between 200 and 250 pounds run as fast as they can into men just as large running in the opposite direction.
Kick Return Team
A specialized unit dedicated to returning kickoffs. Typically, this means a return specialist and ten blockers, all of who must line up according to the rules. A good return unit can assist the offense and allow them to start their drives with good field position.
The most important player here is the kick returner. He must be fast, shifty, tough, and smart, with the courage to run headlong into the oncoming coverage unit, and the wisdom to know when to settle for a touchback.
The long snapper and the punter are the key players on the punt team. The punter’s job is not only to kick the ball as far as he can, though that may be the goal at times. He also needs to be aware of field position, and try to place the ball as close to the goal line as possible.
Like on the field-goal team, players on the punt team must line up according to standard offensive procedural rules. Typically, this means five linemen, two blockers at the wings, a “personal protector” who lines up in front of the punter, and two players split out wide called “gunners”. In cases where the punt team must protect against a heavy rush, they may bring the gunners in as additional blockers.
Punt Return Team
As the name suggests, this team fields and returns punts. Again, the key player is the return man, who is often the same player used to return kicks. Nearly as important are the rushers lined up to block the punt.
Most return teams strike a balance between setting up a good return and trying to get rushers in for the possibility of a blocked punt. Sometimes they will tip the scales in either direction, going all-out for a block and minimizing the chance of a good return. This might seem reckless, but a blocked punt is a big deal in a football game.
Field Goal / Extra Point Team
The personnel for the field goal and extra point teams are very similar. This comprises the kicker, the holder who catches the snap and places it on the ground for the kicker, and the long snapper who snaps the ball to the holder. The long snapper takes over the position on the offensive line normally occupied by the center.
Blockers line up on both sides of the long snapper in the guard, tackle, and end positions, though they may or may not be actual guards or tackles or tight ends. Another player will fill in a wing position and serve as an additional blocker. All the players must line up according to normal procedural rules, meaning seven men on the line of scrimmage and four in the backfield (two being the kicker and holder).
Field Goal Block Team
Just like with regular defense, players defending against field goals and extra points may line up anywhere they wish, with one exception: No player may line up head-to-head with the long snapper. This is a safety consideration as the long snapper is defenseless during and after the snap.
The intent of the field goal defense is to block the kick. Fast, explosive players will line up outside and attempt to get to the ball before the kicker can get it off. Tall players or players who can jump well line up in the middle of the formation to block low kicks.
Besides the rules protecting the long snapper, there are a couple of other important rules in defending field goals and extra points. Players may not step on or otherwise use their teammates as leverage to vault themselves higher and block a kick. They also may not hold or grab blockers to get them out of the way so another player can rush in for the block.
Extra Point Team and Extra Point Block
These are similar units to the field goal and field goal block units. However, extra point teams might add a player or two for a specific purpose. They do this to create the possibility of a surprise or trick play where they go for two instead of kicking it. Whether they ever carry out such a play is almost beside the point. The defense must account for any dangerous player and what he might do.
The Hands Team
When a team is behind and expected to try an onside kick, the return team will field a special unit called the hands team. Wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, and defensive backs make up this unit. In other words, players who are good at handling the football. The goal of the hands team is to field the onside kick and gain possession of the football. When they succeed, it usually slams the door on any comeback for the team that’s behind.
Why Special Teams Is Important
Special teams plays may seem automatic in the NFL. Sure, there is the occasional big return or blocked kick, but otherwise special teams fill in the space between offensive possessions. Don’t let that fool you into thinking they aren’t important. The reason special teams are sometimes boring is the endless hours spent in practice and planning make them routine. This is a testament to not only the skill of the players but that of the coaches.
Football teams can win or lose games on special teams just as easily as on offense or defense. In fact, a team’s leading scorer is usually their kicker. These guys are the 32 best in a world of seven billion people, and when you stop and think about it, what they do is pretty amazing.
We can say the same for punters and even long snappers. Weak players in any of these positions can cost NFL teams a game or two every season, and that can mean the difference between a playoff run or an early January vacation.