Wide receiver/punt returner Alex Erickson is currently fifth in the league in yards per punt return (10.56) and had a great outing against the Giants this weekend. He returned two punts for a total of 44 yards; gaining 15 yards on his first return and another 29 on his second.
The second return was key because it came late in the game after an unexpectedly long kick by the Giants. If he had failed to return this punt, the team would have had more ground to cover, but after his return put them at the 50-yard line, they were only a first down away from a potential game winning field goal with one minute to play.
This video focuses on that return and everything Erickson had to do to make it happen.
There is a reason that even if a team has a talented kickoff returner, the same player does not necessarily return punts. Fielding a punt is not the same as fielding a kickoff. In fact, it is much harder.
Punted footballs descend at a much steeper angle when compared to kickoffs and they often knuckle, making them harder to read. To make matters worse, the coverage gets to the punt returner much faster. So not only does he have to read the trajectory of the punt, he also has to be aware of the coverage and decide if he should make a fair catch or attempt a return.
Because the coverage is on him so fast, there is an added element of pressure. If a kickoff returner drops the ball, he picks it up and the return continues. The coverage does not get to him quickly enough to make a difference. If a punt returner drops the ball, it is likely a turnover because the coverage team is right there.
For all of these reasons, who returns punts is much more about trust than anything else. Whoever has shown that they can do these things consistently will get the snaps on Sunday. A more dynamic returner who has regularly muffed punts in practice will not see the field.
Erickson may not be having a great season as the Bengals’ punt returner, but this moment deserved a spotlight.