When I was a young coach, I worked for a guy who said: “One in every five plays is a special teams play. It’s a third of the game.”
While those numbers don’t add up, the importance of special teams cannot be understated. Just think about how much greater the change of yardage on an average special teams play is vs. the change on an average offensive play.
Not only that, but any punt or kickoff can result in a touchdown. All it takes is one player out of position for a kickoff or punt to be returned for a touchdown or a punt or field goal attempt to be blocked. For this reason, trust is huge on special teams. Each unit must have 11 players who not only have the unique skillset to contribute on special teams but who can be trusted to do their job.
In recent years, Cody Core has made the Bengals roster despite his struggles at the wide receiver position. Every year fans are told that his value on special teams was the deciding factor. Core contributes on the punt, kickoff, punt return, and kickoff return units.
Of course, many scoff at the idea of Core playing a major role on special teams, pointing to his eight career tackles. There are two problems with this. For starters, playing on a special teams coverage team (punt or kickoff) is not only about making tackles, it is about being in the right position and making the tackle if and when it becomes your responsibility. Also, tackles are not a statistic relevant to punt return or kickoff return.
When examining the special teams film from last season, there are a handful of players who stand out. Outside of the team’s kicker, punter, and primary returner Alex Erickson, the players who stand out on film most often are in no particular order Brandon Wilson, Clayton Fejedelem, and the man of the hour, Core.
Let’s take a look at Core’s contributions unit by unit in order to see what value his special teams play brings to the Bengals.
Core is best known for his role as gunner on the punt team. Unless they are using a tight punt formation, there are generally two gunners on the punt team. The gunners are split out wide and have no responsibility for protecting the punter or block point. Instead, they immediately run down the field to cover the punt.
The gunner’s job is to beat the blocker(s) down the field and get to the punt returner’s hip. This means if the returner moves in their direction, they must make the tackle. If the returner moves away, they will squeeze and be there in case of cutback, but they may not be the one making the tackle.
This is an important distinction because they cannot wildly attempt a tackle, forsaking their responsibility as the hip player. There is generally a gunner on each side, which allows the pair to protect both edges and corral the punt returner in to the middle of the field where the rest of the coverage will be.
Core is on the top of the screen in this first clip. He beats the block with athleticism, stacking the blocker as he runs down the field. The ball is kicked opposite of his position, and he squeezes hard to get to the returner’s hip. When the returner tries to cut back to the middle of the field, Core is there to make the tackle.
In this next clip, Core is the gunner at the bottom of the screen. He releases hard to the inside initially, but when the defender turns, Core cuts behind him and heads straight up field. Core puts pressure on the punt returner, forcing the fair catch, but when the fair catch is signaled, he does not stop.
When a fair catch is signaled inside the 10-yard line, it is often an attempt to fool the coverage team into allowing a touchback. For this reason, the first defender should always run past the returner when a fair catch is called in this part of the field. Core does just that and makes a great play to keep the ball out of the end zone and pin the Panthers down at the one-yard line.
Core was the best gunner on the team last season followed by Wilson. Tony McRae got some work at the position as well, but there was a clear drop off. Against the Browns a blocker drove him all the way to the middle of the field and McRae barely got 10 yards down the field. Core’s value here is not just as a tackler, but as a player who can force fair catches and prevent touchbacks.
The kickoff team may look like 10 berserkers running down the field with reckless abandon, but like everything else on the football field, there is order amongst the chaos.
In general the kickoff works like this. There are six lane-players. The role of these players is similar to a defensive who is responsible for a gap against the run, but here they have to play a gap while running full speed down the field. It is important that as they engage with or avoid blockers, they do so to the side of the return and get back into their lane. If not, a lane could open up for the returner.
There are also two force players; with one on either side of the field. This is the role that Core commonly plays. The force player is responsible for forcing the ball to the lane the players to his inside. If the ball comes out wide, he must make the tackle, but generally he will be taking on a blocker and constricting the running lane while holding the edge.
That leaves two safeties and the kicker. If the ball gets past the first level, the safety is responsible for preventing the touchdown. Like the force player, he will work from outside in, but because his only help is the kicker and a safety who is lined up on the opposite side of the field, he must be more aggressive than the force player.
Let’s take a look at how this all comes together. This is the opening kickoff from the Falcons game. Core is the L1, or first player from the left side. His responsibility is to force the ball to the inside. He does exactly what he is supposed to do and engages on the outside shoulder of the lead blocker, leaving his own left shoulder free in case the returner decides to bounce to the outside.
The problems start with the L4 (fourth player from the left), which happens to be Malik Jefferson. Jefferson is a lane player, so when taking on or avoiding a block, he must work to the ball side where the returner is heading. The return is going to his left, but as Jefferson attempts to rip past the blocker to his right. This opens up a lane. The next lane player inside of Jefferson is the L5, Fejedelem. Notice how he takes on a block and works to the left. He is doing exactly what he should be doing, but because he went left and Jefferson went right, they are in the same lane.
It is important for lane players to not only stay in their own lane, but to also stay on the same plane. The lane player outside of Jefferson is C.J. Uzomah who lines up at the L2 position. While he appears to be trying to square up one blocker (hopefully to work to the outside) he is hit from a second blocker on the outside. This block not only takes him out of his lane, it creates levels in the kick-coverage and a huge running lane for the kick returner.
The only player remaining on this side of the ball is the L3 Shawn Williams who plays the role of safety on the kickoff team. He forces the ball inside on this play, but he is not attempting to make the tackle aggressively enough. As a result, the return continues until Darius Phillips comes in from the safety position on the right and forces the ball carrier out of bounds.
In this next next clip, Core is the R1 and the force player on the right side. He runs down the field and pinches in but remains wider than the widest player on the return team. As the return comes his way a lead blocker approaches. Core uses his hands and aggressively strikes the blocker, eliminating the block. The returner takes a wide path, so Core matches. He is in great position to make the tackle before the ball gets to the edge. This is a great job byt Core and forces the returner to cut to the inside.
The first two special teams units we discussed were kicking teams, which are defensive by nature. The next two are return teams, which are offensive so blocking in space is the key skill required.
In this first clip, Core is on the far right on the front line. He is responsible for blocking the third player from the right side. Core turns and runs for depth while working inside to position himself between the returner and the defender he is responsible for. He physically strikes the defender and remains engaged with him until the returner is tackled.
Core is on the far right side of the screen here. Once again he drops back after the ball is kicked, gaining depth and working towards the middle of the field. This time he is responsible for the safety. He approaches and breaks down, making an excellent block in the open field. He maintains this block until Erickson works outside (which is not how the return is designed) to avoid the pursuit.
Core has shown in these clips that he is an excellent blocker in space. He is physical and has the athletic ability to react and adjust as defenders move to avoid the block. This makes him valuable on the return unit and could catch the eye of offensive coaches who have stated that they are committed to running the football.
Core plays a couple of different roles on the punt return team. Sometimes he will appear to be rushing the punt, but in these cases, his role is really to hold the edge and block the wing.
Although he never blocks a gunner one-on-one, he is often the second player double-teaming the gunner. Sometimes he will line up wide to do this, but often he starts out in the box.
In this clip he does just that. He drops straight back with his eyes to the right. McRae is struggling to stay with the Panthers’ gunner. Core starts to break down to make the block, but the gunner alters his angle and accelerates, Core increases his speed and is able to get in front of the gunner and scoop out the block. This is an excellent block and shows great speed and effort by Core.
Cincinnati has been trying out rookie wide receivers Damion Willis and Stanley Morgan in various special teams roles including gunner. Second-year corner Davontae Harris has gotten some work as a gunner as well. For all three, finding a role on special teams could be crucial to their prospects of making the team. It is likely however that Core and Wilson will retain this role primarily.
Auden Tate has shown some ability to play a similar role to that of Core on the return teams. He is a skilled open field blocker. This is not necessarily a threat to Core, as multiple players with this skillset are needed.
In the past, Core brought great value to the Bengals on special teams in a variety of roles. Unfortunately, he has had some struggles this preseason. Although other young players may push for certain roles, he still has a skillset that can be utilized in a variety of ways.
What Core does on these four units contributes to the team's success and has far more value than a depth or developmental player. If Darrin Simmons and the Bengals coaching staff believe he can perform at the same level he did in years past, he will likely make the team for his special teams acumen.