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Special teams: What does that term mean?

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By Eli Kaberon

Last of a three-part series

Special teams are often overlooked by journalists and fans, and for an obvious reason. There are seemingly only two players whose entire job is on the unit, the placekicker and the punter. And in a game defined by its toughness, these two positions don't really compare to the physical burden that others in the sport endure.

But don't confuse their lack of recognition and physicality with their importance. Special-teams units, from extra points to punt coverage to recovering onside kicks, all play great roles in a team's success. Understanding this aspect of the game is as important for viewers as offense or defense.

Pro Football Weekly has compiled some terms associated with special teams that casual fans may not understand. This may be a bit too in-depth for new football fans — if you aren't sure who the punter is or what a kick returner does, several of these terms may seem as though they are written in Russian — but to those who love the sport but can't decipher every word they read or hear about the game, this may be a helpful guide.


A penalty often seen on special teams, called when a player not carrying the ball is hit by an opponent from behind, usually below the waist. The penalty is a personal foul, meaning the ball is moved 15 yards.

Coffin corner

A directional punt aimed out of bounds that pins the receiving team close to its goal line without giving it an opportunity to return the kick. It's a potentially risky tactic, since if the ball goes into the endzone, it is a touchback. If executed correctly, it gives the punt team an opportunity to put its defense in a great position, with the opponent starting a drive with nearly the entire length of the field to go.

Fair catch

A wave of the hand by a punt returner, signaling to the kicking team and referee that he will not be advancing the ball after catching it. By doing this, the returner is not allowed to run after the catch, but in exchange, opposing players aren't allowed to tackle him. This is often done when a punt has good hang time (see definition below) and at least one gunner (see definition below) from the coverage team advances down the field quickly, limiting the running room for the returner, who would rather catch the ball cleanly and not gain any extra yards than risk fumbling away a possession. 


On kickoff and punt coverage teams, the gunner is the player (usually a cornerback or wide receiver) who is responsible for splitting out wide in the formation, then sprinting downfield and making the first attempt at tackling a returner. Other terms associated with gunners are "lanes," which are the paths the players take down the field, and "shedding blockers," a skill gunners must possess as they avoid obstructions on their way to the returner.

Hands team

A group of players — usually consisting of receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and running backs — who line up on for the receiving team when an onside kick is expected. Instead of the normal lineup, which consists of players whose primary goal is to block, the hands team's task is to catch the football without a muff or fumble.

Hang time

The number of seconds that a punt is in the air. Measured from the time the ball leaves the punter's foot to the time the returner touches it. A longer hang time is preferred by coaches, because it allows more time for coverage teams to run downfield and pursue the returner.


The center on the offensive line for kicking formations, such as field goals and punts. Unlike most offensive formations, where the quarterback is lined up under center, special teams are pushed backward. Field-goal holders are lined up seven yards behind the offensive line, and punters are 15 yards back, meaning the long-snapper has to be able to deliver the ball quickly and accurately over a long distance.


The touching of a loose ball by a player in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain possession of the ball. It typically occurs on a punt or kickoff. It differs from a fumble, which is the loss of player possession of the ball, because it occurs before a player has gained possession.

Onside kick

A kickoff that is intended to give possession of the ball to the kicking team. Usually — but not always — done at the end of the game, the kick must travel 10 yards or be touched by a player on the receiving team before it can be recovered by a player on the kicking team.

Pooch punt

An intentionally short punt, used to pin an opponent close to its own endzone. Often done when a team is close enough to try a long field goal but far enough from a first down that it doesn't make sense to go for it.

Squib kick

Instead of launching a kickoff into the air, a kicker will strike the ball so that it rolls down the field. This is typically done at the end of the game with the kicking team leading, because the bouncing kick is less likely to generate a long return than a standard kickoff. The risk involved in this is that if the ball is not kicked straight and ends up rolling out of bounds before it reaches the endzone, the receiving team will start its drive 30 yards from the spot of the kick or at the out-of-bounds spot, with no time coming off the clock during the kickoff.


A kickoff or punt that goes into, or through, the endzone, without being returned by the receiving team, results in a touchback, placing the ball at the receiving team's 20-yard line.


Related links: Defense: What does that term mean? | Offense: What does that term mean?

If there's a term we've forgotten or one you just can't understand, e-mail and we may include it in an updated version.

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