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Special Teams Coverage Drills for Success

In the , I wrote about organizing your special teams and how we plan for a week of practice. This issue, I want to share some drills that we use to practice specific skills for special teams. Just with offense and defense, practice time should be divided among walkthrough team time, individual or group skill development, and lastly full team time either on air or against a scout team. During the preseason, the drills we use can often be done by the whole team at once and double as conditioning while working on the skills that will transfer to our schemes. We will also use circuits to cycle players through quickly and work on multiple skills in a short amount of time. Some of the drills below have been adapted specifically for our schemes. However, they’re easy to adapt to fit your schemes as well.

Coverage Drills

Sideline Coverage Drill

One coverage drill we really like is very simple. We call it “Sideline Coverage Drill”. While it’s primarily for kick off coverage, the skills are applicable to punt coverage as well. I got from AFCA’s Complete Guide to Special Teams in an article by Greg McMahon. The diagram below shows how we set up the field for this drill.

Equipment Needed

8 Cones or something to be used for landmarks, 2 hand shields, Bag or dummy large enough to be tackled.

Description

Cover man (CM) starts on one sideline, then on coach’s command, sprints across the field. He must avoid the first bag while staying w/in the 3 yd box, he then regains his coverage lane to the next scout player. The CM then uses a two-hand butt technique in the ATTACK zone to defeat and shed the 2nd block. Once past this point, the player will sprint to the cones and settle his feet (chopping) in a good football position. The returner will then be released by the coach to run full speed to one of the landmarks. The CM will shuffle to the side that the returner is running to and execute an open field tackle on the bag the returner is holding. The players will then rotate to the starting position at the opposite sideline. One coach will be on each side to release the CM and returner. Variation: This could also be done using a kicker or punter, so that the returner gets practice fielding kicks and the CM gets accustomed to moving on the kicker’s movement.

Coaching Points

  • Players should use any means possible to avoid the first blocker, but must stay w/ in the 3 yd box and regain lane integrity. 
  • On attacking the 2nd bag, players should gather feet to prepare for contact. On contact, they should stun pad with heel of their palms and shuck pad to one side. 
  • Do not release the return man until the CM has gathered feet at cones. 
  • Ensure proper form tackle on the returner’s bag. Have CM execute form tackle and bring the bag to the returner’s spot while still in form tackle.

Defend the Box Drill

Another drill that’s very similar to the sideline coverage drill is one we call “Defend the Box. This drill works on both coverage and on blocking someone in space on a return team. The set up is almost identical to the sideline cover drill with a few changes. The diagram below shows how we set up the field for this drill.

Equipment Needed

8 Cones or something to be used for landmarks.

Description

Cover man (CM) starts on one sideline, then on coach’s command, sprints across the field. A return team blocker (RB) starts the drill aligned 2-3 yds outside of the hash. As the CM sprints, the RB must back pedal to give a 5-7 yd cushion just like a defensive back would for a wide receiver. When the cushion is broken, the RB must then open his hips to “alley run” with the CM. The RB is trying to force the CM to go outside the cones to protect the ball carrier on the opposite numbers. The CM is simply trying to tag the ball carrier. Players will rotate from CM to returner to RB. A coach will be on the side to release the CM. Other coaches should be coaching up the blockers.

Coaching Points

  • The CM should use any means possible to avoid the RB but must stay w/ in the 3 yd box and regain lane integrity. 
  • The RB should delay contact as long as possible and does not need a “kill shot” to guide the CM past the box. When contact must be made, we teach blockers to put one hand (hand furthest from Returner) on the CM’s hip and the other (hand closest to the returner) on his chest and “ride” the CM past the returner. 
  • When the RB opens his hips to alley run, we teach the CM to “cut to his butt”. This means that as soon as the blocker opens his hips up, the CM will cut to his other side forcing the blocker to flip his hips again. 

6 Line Drill

Another drill that works multiple skills at once that we REALLY like is called 6 line drill. I used a variation of this drill when I was in high school in North Georgia in the 1990’s. We’ve adapted it for us. We use stretch zone blocking for our punt protection as part of a rugby punt scheme and we always directionally kick to the right. This drill is great for everyone. When run at a fast pace, you can accomplish a lot with this. Long snappers get lots of snaps, punters get lots of punts, returners get lots of catches IN TRAFFIC, and everyone else gets lots of conditioning by covering down the field. The diagram below shows how we set up the field.

Equipment Needed

Balls and cones. The cones can be used to help the coverage men line up correctly and to give specific coverage landmarks if you want.

Description

There will be two punting groups and return groups. Each on either side of the field. The drill is the same for both sides. The snapper aligns on the ball and three coverman/blockers align as they would on punt to his right. We use 2’ splits on our punt team. Then the snapper goes through his cadence as normal. On the snap the blockers/covermen execute their stretch zone steps and release down field to the returners. Their focus should be on proper spacing, NOT surrounding the returner. Once across the field, they will fill in the lines on the other side of the field. After receiving the snap, the punter will directionally kick toward the returners. The returners will field the ball in traffic and run the ball to the snapper on the opposite side of the field. Essentially everyone except the punters and snappers are moving in one big circle around the field. Variation: This could also be done with the six lines on the same side of the field if you would prefer. You could also have the cover men surround, contain, and breakdown around your returners. You can also provide defenders for the blockers to “rip” across.

Coaching Points

  • Coaching points are largely based on the schemes you use for punt protection. For us, we want the blockers to step flat, rip across the face or outside shoulder of the defenders. We also want them 3-5 yds apart as they cover down the field. 
  • Returners must focus to catch the ball. We have found this particularly helpful in getting players to field punts when under pressure from the coverage team. . 
  • In order to be most effective, players must SPRINT. We get a ton of reps and our kids can get gassed quickly, but this is a GREAT mental toughness and conditioning drill.

Conclusion

Special Teams drills are not often thought of and most people just rep the whole unit. Don’t forget about these drills the next time you face issues with your special teams unit’s execution.


This article was originally published in Headsets: Volume 2, Issue 4.

Stephen Mikell

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