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The Film Room: The Anatomy Of A Kickoff Return Touchdown

The Texans go all the way...to losing the first overall pick.

Houston Texans v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Lightning struck Sunday during a kickoff return for the Texans in their win against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tremon Smith’s 98-yard return will go down as one of the highlights in a season full of lowlights and troughs. Special teams hasn’t been something the Texans have been ~special~ at, but Sunday was an example of how one play can change the entire complexion of a game. Smith’s miraculous play was the first time a Houston player had done it since Jacoby Jones last took one to the house on October 4, 2009 against the Oakland Raiders (a game I attended actually).

First, we have to understand the new rules of the NFL kickoff return. This video does a fantastic job of going through the changes in detail.

So will this video built by the faithful at the NFL.

To summarize, the NFL sucked all the creativity and speed from the play, formalized the formation to the point where strategy is incapable of being created, and restricted much of the blocking that can spring a long return.

So how do kick returns for a touchdown happen? There are several critical pieces of a kick return that must be executed for the play to run.

1. Speed

Tremon Smith ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. To quote my dad when watching literally any fast player, “I bet he ran track in high school”. No, Father, I believe he played quidditch. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Smith actually ran 128.8 yards on his 98 yard return, the third longest play of the season.

Speed kills. It’s truly the biggest factor in a run from one end zone to the other. The era of Devin Hester is over, but a kickoff like this is a game changer.

2. A Touch of Creativity

While Roger Goodell has stripped enough creativity from this play to match his own personality, there is still strategy, teamwork, and technique involved in making it work. First, the Texans’ ‘fall back point’, the designated yard line where all the defenders run to reestablish their blocks (since they can't block up the field), was properly organized and defined. Combo blocks aren’t allowed, so they have to be spread out.

The real point of creativity comes from the organized swing block by Chris Moore from the right side of the field to the left. His block wasn’t otherworldly, but it created a numbers advantage. A small deviation from the standard procedure can result in big plays.

3. Missed Tackles

It’s fairly impossible to go completely untouched on the way to a kick return touchdown. It certainly helps, but usually the defense at least get a hand on the ball carrier. Watch Jaguars linebacker Chapelle Russell miss an ankle tackle here, followed by a honorable yet horrific attempt by kicker Matthew Wright, and a poor form by Rudy Form. These combined wet napkin failures were instrumental in this play going the distance.

#4. A Convoy

Nothing is better than the “Oh, [KITTEN], they are going to return this for a touchdown” feeling when you see the ball carrier with multiple blockers down field to escort him to the end zone. It’s also critical, as there is always a ‘last man’ who is sprinting for his life to tackle the kick returner at the last second. The returner often loses steam at the opponent’s 25 yard line and is essentially sputtering by the time he gets to the goal line. Wide receiver Chris Moore and cornerback Tavierre Thomas led Smith to the end zone and kept any Jaguar from catching him. It’s simply more fun when you do things with your friends.

#5 A Key Block

Jonathan Owens’ work on this block is delightful. He creates the missed tackle by disrupting the contact between Smith and the Jaguars’ tacklers. Even before that, Owens plows the road, opening up a crease through a couple of blocks. He’s essentially the fullback on this play, knocking over defensive linemen and still getting to the linebackers.

To illustrate how much this play has changed, this role used to be reserved for the backup offensive lineman and linebackers. Now it’s in the hands of the defensive backs.

Tremon Smith signed with the Houston Texans in March of this year. A cornerback from Central Arkansas, Smith was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the sixth round of the NFL Draft. He made the 2018 All-Rookie team as a kick returner, so this is something he’s fairly good at. After being cut by the Chiefs the following year, he’s been on and off several teams rosters before finding a home with the Houston Texans. He signed a contract extension with the Texans in early December, and it paid that off Sunday with a highlight reel return.