Install a Middle Punt Return

By Steve Ortmayer

I coached special teams in the NFL for 18 years. The beginning of special teams coordinators in the NFL was in 1976, when George Allen was the head coach of the Washington Redskins. I will relay some things to you that reflect what I believe about football in the NFL. That will not be entirely apropos to you. However, if you translate what I say, it will be.

In the game of football, one of every five plays is a kicking game play. I consider the kicking game to have seven levels of special team play. On each play in the kicking game, one or more of these three events take place:

  • A direct attempt to put points on the board
  • A change of ball possession
  • A sizable amount of yardage is involved (40 yards of more)

If you are a good team, the ratio is about one in every six plays is a kicking game play. If you are not a good team, it is one in every four plays. The kicking game plays have the potential for big momentum swings both positively and negatively. Kicking game plays weight heavy as they affect the tide and the outcome of the game.

Many of the big “breaks” in a game occur on a kicking play. Breaks usually happen when a team or a player is unprepared for a situation. When a team is prepared, the chance to capitalize upon a break presents itself at the most opportune time. The kicking game breaks mark the difference in winning and losing.

In my opinion, the kicking game is relative to about 35 percent of the game. If we talk about the kicking game being one in five plays, that relates to 20 percent of the game. The momentum plays and the weight of the momentum in the kicking game is probably as important as the 1/3 offensive and 1/3 defensive plays in a game.

We consider the punt return and kickoff return to be the first play of an offensive drive. The field goal is the final play of an offensive drive. Defensively, the punt coverage team and kickoff coverage is big parts of the defensive philosophy. The field- goal block team is the third phase of the defensive kicking game.

In my opinion, special teams are a way for lesser or younger players to find a role in your football team. You have to do that in the NFL, but you can do it in college and high school and be comfortable. The one element you cannot sacrifice in the kicking game is speed. You cannot play with players in the kicking game that cannot run. If they can run, they need not be the best or toughest players on your team.

You can get a player to buy into a role in the kicking game and it becomes his special area. Players who are not ready to play on offense or defense will buy into a role in the kicking game.


In the punt-return game, the wide coverage men have to be blocked. We have to do whatever we can to keep them from getting in front of our return man. By blocking the wide coverage men, we are buying grass in front of the return man. If you can buy 15 yards of grass in front of your return man, he will hurt people. If we have to double both the outside men, we will. That means we have five players involved with two defenders.

I will use two blockers on one man, if we run directionally. When we run a directional return, we start everything at a 45-degree angle. We must get the first 10 yards immediately. We never run laterally or backward. I also will double-team the containment man to the side of the return. Every punt coverage team has a player responsible for containment. If they lose their containment man, they are in trouble.

In the punt return game, there are six “don’ts.” Don’t:

  • Be offsides
  • Rough the punter
  • Clip
  • Let the ball bounce
  • Let the kicker run the ball
  • Field the ball inside the 10-yard line

I think the worst thing you can do in the kicking game is to put your defense back on the field. That is a psychological killer. I do not like to rush a punt on fourth and less than five yards for a first down. If you have a guy who is keyed up to block the punt and jumps offside, that gives the offense a first down.

The same rules hold for roughing the punter. Do not rush the punter in fourth and less than five yards for a first down. If two or three rushers run into one another and one bounces off and hits the punter, you put the defense back on the field.

Do not block anyone when you cannot see the numbers on the front of their jersey. That is a disciplinary thing for the return team. We do not block very much downfield. We tell our return team to find the return man so they know where the return is. They run to a point on the field where the return is coming. We hold up defenders and run to that point, trying to put our bodies between the defender and the return man. All of our returns are man-to-man blocking schemes. We do not run any wall returns.

The return man will beat the coverage coming late. What he cannot beat is the quick speed in front of him. If you let good return men start running upfield at coverage players, they will beat most of them on their own. Teach your return men to run at coverage personnel and make a move. When the return man runs away from the coverage, he puts all of them in the pursuit game. Everyone who can run will run down the return man. However, if he runs at them and freezes the defender, he can get by him.

Steve Ortmayer is a former assistant head coach, special teams coordinator and tight ends coach at the University of Kentucky. One of the most-respected special teams coaches in the game, Ortmayer has coached for almost four decades, including 18 seasons as a special teams coach. As a member of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders’ staff, Ortmayer coached the special teams for the 1981 and 1984 Super Bowl champions. He began his college coaching career in 1967 at the University of Colorado. He then moved to Georgia Tech in 1974, before beginning his career in the pro football coaching ranks.