The instant the Chiefs’ special-teams players saw the St. Louis Rams pull a fake punt return for a touchdown last week against Seattle, they recognized it step-for-step.
It was stolen right out of the Chiefs’ playbook.
“It’s the Johnny Knox play,” Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt said knowingly.
The trick play was designed and first implemented by Chiefs special-teams coach Dave Toub in 2011, when he was at Chicago. It calls for 10 members of the return team to lure the coverage unit by pretending to be blocking for a return on one side of the field. Meanwhile, a solitary return man on the opposite side actually returns the punt.
Toub brought the play to Kansas City. The Chiefs tried to use it last season against Denver, but the punt hit the ground before it could be returned.
The Rams pulled it off brilliantly after noticing through film study that Seattle’s Jon Ryan punted to his left nearly every time.
After Ryan booted the ball, St. Louis’ Tavon Austin fooled the Seahawks when he faked like he was catching the punt on the right side. But it went, as anticipated, to the left, where Stedman Bailey, who had lined up as if he was going to block a gunner, peeled back, caught the punt and raced 90 yards for a stunning touchdown in last week’s 28-26 upset of the Super Bowl-champion Seahawks.
That was one of three big special-teams plays executed by the Rams, setting up what could be a battle between two of the best special-teams units in the NFL when St. Louis, 2-4, visits the Chiefs, 3-3, at noon today in the Governor’s Cup game at Arrowhead Stadium.
“Yeah, we ran that play in 2011 against the Green Bay Packers,” Toub said of his time with the Bears. “Unfortunately, it was called back. They ran it better than us. They executed and got the touchdown.”
Toub conceived the play because star return man Devin Hester drew so much attention from punt teams, just as Austin does for St. Louis.
So while with Chicago, he positioned Knox on the other side of the field, and sure enough Green Bay’s Tim Masthay punted it in the direction Toub expected. As the Bears’ blocking unit and Hester flowed one way, Knox fielded the punt and went 89 yards for a touchdown, only to see the play nullified by a holding penalty.
“If you have a punter who always punts in one spot all the time, you just bring your guy down to that part of the field, and he catches it and runs it back,” Toub said. “If he kicks it the other way, then you field it because you have protection. Really, it’s a low risk. If we don’t field it, then we just let the ball bounce.”
That’s what happened last year when the Chiefs attempted the fake return against Denver.
“Kyle Williams dropped back, and we just didn’t get it there in time, and the ball hit the ground,” Toub said. “At the end of the game, their (special-teams) coach said, ‘Wasn’t that the Johnny Knox play?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it was.’ ”
Because the Chiefs have that play in their repertoire, they shouldn’t be caught off guard if the Rams were to try it, or something similar, again.
“The (Seattle) gunners just didn’t find the ball,” said cornerback Phillip Gaines, who is a gunner on the Chiefs’ punting team. “That’s something that the coaches are preaching that once the ball is in the air, you have to locate it. That way you can make a play on it. The gunners unfortunately just followed Tavon Austin and that’s how that happened.”
Trickery on special teams is a signature of Jeff Fisher-coached teams.
In the 1999 playoffs, his Tennessee Titans pulled what they called Home Run Throwback, when Frank Wycheck threw a cross-field lateral to Kevin Dyson, who went 75 yards for a touchdown in the closing seconds of a 22-16 win over Buffalo.
That play became known as the Music City Miracle. Last week against Seattle, the Rams pulled three River City Marvels:
▪ A 75-yard kickoff return by Benny Cunningham that set up St. Louis’ first touchdown.
▪ The 90-yard punt return by Bailey, who had never returned a punt at any level — not in the NFL, in college at West Virginia or at high school in Miami.
▪ A daring pass from punt formation by punter Johnny Hekker, who completed an 18-yard pass to Cunningham on fourth and 3 from the St. Louis 18 with 2:55 to play, sealing the victory.
“You want to give your guys a chance to win, and you’re going to scheme special-teams plays no different than offense or defense,” said Fisher, who has called 27 fake punts in his 18 seasons as a head coach.
“You have to take advantage of opportunities if they’re there. We saw several opportunities. One of the things overshadowed was Benny’s 75-yard kickoff return. That was huge for us from a field-position standpoint. We got points off of that. We place emphasis on all three areas.”
The Chiefs stress the importance of special teams as much as anyone. A year ago, the Chiefs set an NFL record for kickoff return average at 29.9 yards, and returned four kicks for touchdowns — two punts and two kickoffs, including Knile Davis’ 108-yarder, tied for the second-longest kickoff return in NFL history.
Because of their ability to return and cover kickoffs and punts, the Chiefs led the NFL last season in average starting field position both on offense, the 33.4, and defense, 23.2. But this season, the Chiefs return game has yet to get going.
The Chiefs are averaging just 21.4 yards per kickoff return, which ranks 24th in the NFL, and the offense’s average starting position ranks 16th (27.6).
“We’re disappointed right now (with) the kick-return game,” Toub said. “We’ve had some breakdowns. It’s one guy here, one guy there, whether it’s the kick or whatever. We just haven’t been able to pop one yet.
“They are doing everything that we are coaching them to do. We still want to be aggressive coming out with the ball. That’s not going to change. We just have to do a better job blocking. It’s not the returners; it’s the blocking up front to give those guys a chance to get started.”
Unexpected plays on special teams can often be the equalizer between an underdog team like St. Louis when playing a team like Seattle or going on the road to play a team like the Chiefs, who are coming off a confidence-building win at San Diego.
“Most games are decided by special teams,” said Colquitt. “You have a handful of games that are 27-7 or 23-10, but so many games are by seven points, three points.”
That was the case last week when rookie Cairo Santos made all three of his field goals, including the 48-yard game-winner with 21 seconds left, in the Chiefs’ 23-20 win at San Diego. Santos, after a shaky start this season, has made six straight field goals.
St. Louis will counter with Greg Zuerlein, the former Missouri Western kicker whose only two misses in eight attempts this year have been from 50 and 52 yards. Every time the Rams reach the opponents’ territory, he’s a threat. Zuerlein is the only kicker in NFL history to make 60- and 50-yard field goals in the same game and the only one to make two field goals over 55 yards in a single game.
But Santos’ performance at San Diego renewed the Chiefs’ faith in him.
“To be able to make that kind of a kick in front of 65,000 people when the game was on the line, when everybody’s (watching),” Toub said, “he’s got to go out and do it, and he did it. That’s going to help his confidence; it helps our confidence in him, players’ confidence in him going forward.