January 19, 2022

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Inside the design behind Tremon Smith’s kickoff return TD

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Welcome to Film Room, where we’ll break down significant portions from the Texans’ last football game. Have a seat. Set the phone aside. Let’s dive in.

Smith snaps 12-year drought: “Of course they brought it up,” Tremon Smith said. Of course the CBS announcers, Andrew Catalon and James Lofton, brought up 2018. The Texans’ kick returner was a rookie playing for the Chiefs then, on Oct. 14, 2018, when he was chased down from behind by Patriots safety Devin McCourty on national television, three yards short of a touchdown.

“Everybody still brings it up,” Smith said. “I think it’s done for right now, though. I think they can leave it in the past.”

Smith looked back several times himself on his 98-yard kick return touchdown against the Jaguars. Once after breaking through tackles at the 30. Again near midfield. Thrice more before crossing the goal line.

“When I broke through them last few tackles, I’m like, ‘I can’t get caught,’” Smith said. “So I keep looking back, keep looking back. And I’ve got to stop doing that, too. I’ve got to start looking at the Jumbotron. If I stop looking back, I’ll stop slowing down and won’t have to worry about anybody catching me.”

First-year Texans general manager Nick Caserio caught Smith for another season, signing the 25-year-old defensive back in early December to a one-year, $1.6 million extension. Smith has already returned on the investment.

His 29-yard return average ranks third in the NFL among players who’ve returned 10 kicks or more. He’s given the boost to Houston’s special teams that longtime return specialist Andre Roberts failed to provide in six games before the Texans cut him in mid-October. It was Smith who snapped the franchise’s 12-year wait — a 4,459-day dry spell since Jacoby Jones’ 95-yard return touchdown against the Raiders on Oct. 4, 2009, that was the longest active drought in the NFL.

“He is so explosive back there,” coach David Culley said of Smith, who now has returned 12 kicks for 354 yards in eight games.

Of course, there was more to Smith’s touchdown than speed. In the age of illegal wedge blocks and setup zones, NFL special teams coordinators must design even craftier schemes to score on kickoffs in a game that’s also giving receiving teams increasingly more incentives to fair catch and accept touchbacks.

Frank Ross, who took over Houston’s units in 2021 after three years as an assistant in Indianapolis, first constructed kickoffs around Roberts. But the two-time All-Pro’s 21.4 yards per return were beneath the NFL’s league average (22.2) and the Texans cut Roberts in mid-October.

Enter Smith. The four-year veteran initially signed a one-year, $1.1 million contract in March. He led the Texans in preseason kick return yards before entering the season as a reserve cornerback who played various special teams roles. Then, when Roberts was cut, Smith returned his first kick 27 yards in Houston’s Week 7 loss at Arizona.

Part of the productivity uptick was Smith. Part of it, Ross said, was the increased cohesion of units made up mostly of players who were scattered on different NFL teams a year ago.

“It’s an 11-man show,” Ross said in early December. “One break down might stop you in your tracks. Two breakdowns, you might not have any shot at all. When you do get that one crease, when you do get that one shot, (Smith’s) got the speed and a little bit of wiggle to him. We want to attack aggressively downhill.”

Then came what would be Smith’s longest return until the Jaguars game, a 44-yard return just before halftime in Houston’s Week 8 loss to the Rams. The return was enough to give the Texans a shot at a field goal attempt despite the offense starting at their own 38 with just 23 seconds left in the second quarter.

The designs to these forthcoming kickoffs are important, so here’s a little necessary rule clarity before we continue:

• A kickoff team must have at least five players on each side of the ball
• Two of those five (on each side) must be lined up between the sideline and the numbers
• Two more of those five (on each side) must be lined up between the numbers and the hash marks

These requirements keep kickoff teams from overloading any portion of the field, and, since players also can’t have more than a one-yard head start, the rules prevent crowded and full-tilt collisions on onside kicks.

There are notable restrictions for receiving teams, too:

• At least eight players must be lined up within 15 yards of the ball before it’s kicked (called the “setup zone”)
• No player can block within the setup zone until the ball is touched or hits the ground
• Only players who start off in the setup zone can perform double-team blocks

The setup zone rules, particularly the double-team restrictions, lead to scenarios where different pairs of setup-zone blockers frequently sweep backward, connect, then attempt to seal off a path for the returner to enter.

On Smith’s 44-yard return against the Rams (sequence pictured below), which was kicked toward the right portion of the end zone, linebackers Garret Wallow (white arrow) and Neville Hewitt (orange arrow) linked up at the Houston 35 to provide the initial wall for a return toward the right sideline.

The Rams had a balanced kickoff alignment (two outside the numbers, three inside the numbers), but they were unable to break through the Wallow-Hewitt double-team (circled white) or Houston’s additional blocks (circled green). Running back Scottie Phillips (circled purple) and tight end Antony Auclair (circled maroon) secured lead blocks that freed Smith to the sideline. If Rams kicker Matt Gay hadn’t tripped up Smith near midfield, Smith’s touchdown may have come that afternoon.

“We’ve been a man or two away from breaking him earlier,” Culley said, “where one guy didn’t quite get him up in the wedge where we needed to get him. One guy here and one guy there.”

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The Texans were perhaps one guy away again in the waning minutes of their Week 12 home game against the Jets (sequence shown below), a score that would’ve tied the game in what ended up being a 21-14 loss.

The Jets used the same balanced kickoff alignment as the Rams. But this time Jets kicker Matt Ammendola — who (notice the extra “m”) is unrelated to Texans slot receiver Danny Amendola, although Danny does have an older brother named Matt — kicked the ball down the middle.

The Texans responded with a more balanced blocking design. There were no double-teams. But they funneled the Jets inward to eventually create a hole on the left.

Wide receiver Chris Moore (white arrow) and safety Eric Murray (black arrow) both pushed their defenders toward the middle of the field. The right side was sealed by additional blockers (circled yellow), and Wallow (yellow arrow) and safety A.J. Moore (blue arrow) shoved their defenders with exceptional blocks to the right, opening a lane to the left.

Had Auclair (circled green) locked his defender, Smith might’ve busted free. But Jets corner Javelin Guidry tripped Smith enough at the 20 for linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips to finish the job at the Houston 31.

The Texans’ offense went three-and-out twice more before the game ended.

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Then Smith’s touchdown arrived.

The Jaguars entered Sunday’s game with a wrinkle in their kickoff alignment that they hadn’t used before when they played the Texans back in Week 1 (sequence shown below). Notice their left side had the usual balance, while their right side fulfilled their requirement to have two players outside the numbers and two players inside the hash marks, but they legally placed their third defender in the middle of the field, near the ball (yellow number).

That was rookie safety Andre Cisco, a third-round pick from Syracuse who’d become somewhat of a ranging gunner on the Jaguars’ kickoff team. Jacksonville debuted this alignment during Week 5, pocketed it in Weeks 8 and 9, then brought it back for the five games leading up to their rematch with the Texans, including the week before against Titans, when Cisco forced a fumble on the opening kickoff.

Ross had a plan ready.

In fact, Smith felt so good about it, he couldn’t wait.

“I knew it was this one certain return,” Smith said, “and if we got the right kick and I made a couple guys miss that it could go the distance. So, of course, I asked him to start off the game with it. And the first kick we got, they tried to kick it away, went far right. And then the second one, it was just… it was perfect, just like practice.”

The Texans made Cisco’s freedom to roam work against the Jaguars.

The kickoff went left. So did Cisco, in pursuit of the ball.

But the Texans counterbalanced their blockers to the left, creating an advantageous lane with greater numbers in which Smith had three lead blockers (numbered in yellow) ahead of him.

Moore (1) was the crafty one. He began within the setup zone and curled around the 20-yard line numbers behind linebackers Eric Wilson (green arrow) and Kevin Pierre-Louis (blue arrow). The rest of the Texans’ blockers walled off the left sideline (circled green) by the time Moore veered vertical, and Smith (circled red) now had the numbers advantage behind Moore, Auclair (2) and running back Royce Freeman (3).

When Cisco plowed through Wallow on the sideline (yellow arrow), it was too late for him to recover.

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A path appeared (sequence shown below).

Auclair assisted Wilson on a block that opened the middle of the field (blue arrow). Wide receiver Jordan Veasy locked up another that sealed the other side of the opening (green arrow). Safety Jonathan Owens and Pierre-Louis doubled a defender with a block that broke Smith free with Freeman leading the way (purple arrow).

Smith still broke through four tacklers in a last-effort surge at the 30.

Then he was gone.

“He was coming in there so fast and so hard,” Culley said. “And he wanted it so bad. And he had been so close a couple other times before. And once he got up in that wedge, and there were three or four guys right there ready to tackle him, man, he just ran right through those guys. He could see. He felt it.”

Smith had his first career touchdown. Ross had his first as a special teams coordinator. The Texans had their first in a dozen years. They’ll hope they won’t have to wait so long again.

For now, Smith is relishing in chasing off his ghost from Kansas City. He’s made plans to give each of the Texans’ return blockers a gift.

“It’s going to be something real nice,” Smith said. “You know, the holidays are coming up, too. It will be a surprise. They’re not going to know when they’re going to get it or anything. It’s just going to be up in their locker one day.”

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