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About that 12-man penalty: Why did the Bills replace their defense on the “Mayday” field goal?

We need to talk about the Buffalo Bills’ 12-man penalty kill – the one that lost them the game on Monday, when the Denver Broncos got another missed field goal attempt for the win. This penalty was not the inevitable result of fast football. This was not a human error beyond the control of the head coach or special teams coach. This penalty should not fall on players who did not execute the substitution correctly.

Athleticism spoke to two recently retired special teams coordinators and three other current NFL staffers who work closely with coaching decisions, and all five agreed that an NFL team should not not replace their existing defense with field goal block defense when operating in a mayday field goal situation. There is not enough time to guarantee a clean substitution (in less than two minutes, the referees do not stand over the ball to allow a man-for-man substitution) and the chances of blocking a basket are slim.

“Defensively, we will never replace an opponent’s Mayday situation with the exact reason for what happened the other night,” said Mike Priefer, longtime special teams coordinator for four NFL teams. , most recently the Cleveland Browns.

Over the past five seasons, just 2.2 percent of all field goal attempts have been blocked in the NFL (86 out of 3,925), and it has been even less common when the game was on the line. same period, only 1.8 percent of all potential game-tying/goal attempts in the fourth quarter or overtime were blocked (7 of 392).

Buffalo actually performed above average on this play. The Bills blocked 2.7 percent of all opponent field goal attempts under head coach Sean McDermott, the seventh-most rate highest in the NFL since its first season in 2017. That includes 7.1 percent of potential tying/goal attempts on fourth down. quarter or OT by their opponents (1 in 14).

But that’s still not enough reward to risk a more likely and unnecessary outcome: having too many men on the ground.

“You don’t want to give them a second chance,” Priefer said. “Whichever 11 are on the field, in a distress situation, keep them out and make sure you have no more than six on the line of scrimmage on one side or the other from the center, and make sure you come out from the edge.

This is the opposite of what Buffalo tried to do. They moved from their dime defense with six defensive backs to their field goal blocking unit. Five players left the field. Six continued.

“We practiced two or three times this week, from dime replacement to block to field goal,” McDermott said. “And at the end of the day, we didn’t execute it, so it’s inexcusable.”


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Before we go any further, we need to define what a Mayday field goal actually is. Broncos coach Sean Payton said he now calls it “hurricane,” and other teams might call it “lightning,” but no matter what you call it, teams have parameters similar.

1. Clock running
2. The offense no longer has any timeouts in the half
3. Third down, inside or near the basket
4. In 40 seconds, up to 17 seconds on the clock

In the Mayday scenario, the head coach alerts the offense and the special teams coordinator, who relays the message to the kicking unit to be ready. The kicking unit is likely already prepared on the sidelines, as their job is to be two or three steps ahead of the offense. The offense must go down as quickly as possible to buy time and leave the field immediately, then the snapper takes charge of the kicking unit, always keeping one eye on the clock.

It may look like absolute chaos, but teams practice these situations multiple times in training camp and then multiple times throughout the year with the entire team. Kickers, snappers and holders run through this scenario several times a week. “We drill it, we time it, we drill it, we time it,” Payton told reporters. There’s even a coordinated way for the offense to leave the field (directly, horizontally) and the kicking unit to come into play (at an angle to the bench), so no one comes into play. collision and don’t waste time.

In Denver’s case, quarterback Russell Wilson knelt down three times to prepare for the Mayday field goal, so it was a planned Mayday. This is slightly different from other forms where the offense actually plays on third down, which means more uncertainty because the field goal depends on third down. In this case, there was no third down, or second down, or even first down. Denver was within comfortable field goal range after issuing a 28-yard defensive pass interference penalty, so all three plays were on the knees.

Buffalo even took two timeouts in the middle of knees 1 and 2 and knees 2 and 3. They knew what was coming, and those timeouts should have given them enough time to organize the basket block substitutions, if they insisted on replacing. In this scenario, a planned Mayday, where everything is telegraphed, would it be appropriate here to substitute defense for field goal blocking? For Buffalo, that meant replacing five players.

Priefer said no, but allowed some flexibility. He said he would have replaced the base defense during one of the timeouts that Buffalo took in Denver’s lap. In Cleveland, Priefer said the 4-3 base defense is made up of the same personnel as the field goal block personnel, but that’s not the case for every team. That way, they would be ready in this defense before Denver made their quick change to the field goal unit on fourth down.

Many coaches oppose the idea of ​​replacing the defense in this situation, because with the passage of time, there is no need to overcomplicate things. Do not fight ; screw up your opponent.

Denver’s Wil Lutz capitalized on his second-chance basket. (Bryan Bennett/Getty Images)

And the Broncos had already fought in this game. The reason they were down by one point was because kicker Wil Lutz missed an extra point in the second quarter, and then again in the fourth quarter, when Broncos holder/punter Riley Dixon mishandled the snap on an extra point attempt that Lutz made. I didn’t even kick the ball (Dixon ran with the ball, then fumbled and recovered it). All the more reason not to risk replacing defensive players during Mayday.

The two former special teams coordinators Athleticism said they created a plan with their head coach well in advance for this scenario. And the plan didn’t change during the match.

Many NFL teams have a ready block team within the defense present on the field, regardless of sub-package or base package. Every defensive player must know where to line up and execute a block to the basket. Some teams even practice this on every positioning scenario during preseason games, so players get used to the situation.

On Denver’s side of that questionable sequence, Lutz’s 40-yard miss had reporters wondering if the Broncos actually had enough time to execute the field goal attempt with 24 seconds on the clock.

“Was there a second guess (about) the basket unit coming out a little earlier?” » asked a local Denver reporter on Tuesday.

“No,” Payton said. “Here’s the thing, 17 seconds is the limit. So for us to be able to send our dispatched unit, with the time we had, I knew we had plenty of time.

Whether there was enough time was the wrong question to ask. The good question is: did they use enough time to play this as sonically as possible?

Priefer said the general rule is for the snapper to snap the ball with less than five seconds left on the play clock, so there is no time left after the kick for another play. Denver moved that fast with his basket against the hurricane that he broke the ball with seven seconds on the left, an eternity. And all that extra hustle may have caused Lutz to miss, but it may also have played into Buffalo’s sloppiness in substitutions. There were four seconds left on the clock after the failure. In the first half, Denver executed the hurricanrana perfectly, snapping the ball with three seconds on the clock.

On Tuesday after the game, McDermott also addressed the late-game debacle in more detail. He talked about the two different ways a team could play, stay or substitute, which the Bills did in this game. In the first half, Denver ran the truest version of the Mayday field goal in a more compressed schedule, with 20 seconds on the clock to start their third-and-6 play, a complete pass to Jerry Jeudy and, in this scenario, Buffalo kept the same defensive personnel for the field goal attempt. The kick was good and there were no defensive penalties.

“Normally you stay with your defensive team, we call it a defensive stay,” McDermott said. “And you do that so you don’t have to deal with a fire drill type situation, where you’re trying to get as many people up and down. By the end of the game, there are two schools of thought. Either you do the same thing and rush with your defensive unit or you try to get your blocking, max rushing unit, that’s what the coach (special teams coordinator Matt Smiley) tried to do and unfortunately, a certain quantity came in and not the equivalent came out.

“Since it doesn’t happen very often, I would just try to keep it simple and not change anything,” Priefer said. “Because for me it would be exactly the same situation at the end of the half and at the end of the match.”

McDermott had the right answer. And he knew it well enough to say it out loud. He put the blame on his special teams coordinator, but this mistake speaks volumes about the team’s process as a whole. Why was there no coherent plan?

(Top photo by Sean McDermott: Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

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