Something remarkable happened in the second half of Arizona’s 23-14 win over the 49ers, and we’re not talking about the Niners’ second-half swoon. They’ve blown leads in their last two games; we’re getting used to that.
When Cardinals defensive end Tommy Kelly blocked Phil Dawson’s 46-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter, it did more than kneecap the Niners' momentum and put an ugly exclamation point on a possession which saw the visitors flagged for a pair of personal fouls.
The sight of Dawson’s kick burrowing into the flesh just over the crook of Kelly’s right elbow -- “He might have ‘Wilson’ branded on his forearm,” wisecracked special teams coordinator Amos Jones -- cemented Arizona as the place placekickers least like to play. Kelly’s was the Cardinal’s 17th blocked kick since 2008, by far the most in the NFL during that time.
What’s behind these serial rejections? Some factors are plain as day. Edge rushers Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel, with two blocked kicks apiece, are wily, fearless and blessed with superb "get-off," as they refer to their burst off the line. Kelly, cut by the Patriots on Aug. 24 and snapped up by Arizona three days later, is 6-foot-6, 310 pounds. Calais Campbell, the defensive end who lines up alongside Kelly on that special team, goes 6-8, 300 pounds, and has used his pterodactyl wingspan to swat down six field goals in his seven-year career.
Long limbs, superior technique and great get-off are good things, says Campbell. “But the No. 1 reason you block a kick is that you line up with the mentality that you’re going to block it.”
More often than any other team, the Cardinals do, a factoid that lodges itself in the grey matter of the specialists going up against them. At least that's what Campbell believes.
"Every kicker that plays against us, especially at home, knows that he has to kick it quicker, and he has to kick it higher. ‘Cause … we’re coming." If you are a kicker, Campbell hopes those adjustments will "screw with your system, mess up your rhythm, make you feel like you gotta be perfect."
When he first broke into the league, Campbell often felt the breeze of the ball as it sailed past his hand. "But I never blocked any kicks, even though I got close to ‘em." He was mistiming his leap. "I’d try to jump too quick, and so I wouldn’t get a good push."
He solved that problem, and started knocking balls down. Upon their arrival in 2013, head coach Bruce Arians and his special teams coordinator Amos Jones have refined the team’s kick-blocking techniques.
"They came in and said, 'OK, we’ve got guys with the ability to do something crazy,'" Campbell paraphrases. "'Let’s teach them the proper techniques, so we can do it more often.'"
Jones has worked with Campbell on his swim move -- "before that," Campbell says, "I would just line up and rush really hard," -- and coached the linemen up on how to play off each other, forcing blockers to reach in a certain direction, allowing a teammate to knife through the resulting crease.
Jones is a former Alabama special teams ninja -- he played in the twilight of Bear Bryant’s career -- and high school history teacher who coached for Arians when his boss was the head man at Temple. After studying film, probing for weaknesses, Jones will sometimes go into a game with a strong feeling that a blocked kick is imminent, a visceral hunch that rises to the level of "a premonition," he says, before allowing that "sometimes it might just be gas."
He had plenty of those hunches in 1990 and ’91, his second tour of duty as a ‘Bama coach. In those two seasons the Tide blocked 11 kicks. The most memorable, if you ask Jones: In 1990 Tennessee had beaten Alabama five years in a row. When Vols kicker Greg Harris attempted a 50-yarder with 1:35 to play, Jones recalls, "We put a double rush between the tight end and the wingback to the field.
"I'd reminded Stacy Harrison to block it with his hands. Just like we drew it up, he blocked it with his helmet. The ball rolled about 40 yards in the other direction." Four snaps later, Phil Doyle won it for Alabama with 48-yarder as time ran out in a despondent Neyland Stadium.
If not for Harrison’s block, "We'd still be playing," says Jones. "Cause neither offense could score."
Sometimes, the blocked kick unfolds just as the coach drew it up on the board. Other times, such as Kelly’s emphatic “Return To Sender” last Sunday, he needs the boys to bail him out. A blocked kick is always exotic, a rarity. This one was even more so, considering that Arizona managed to do it with just nine men on the field.
The confusion commenced when the 49ers put personnel on the field leading the Cardinals to believe they were about to attempt a fake. With Peterson alertly pointing out the intended receiver, the 49ers called off the fake -- or so Jones and the Cardinals believe -- and subbed in a blocker. That player appeared to line up on the wrong side of the formation. To long snapper Kyle Nelson’s left: five Niners blocking two opponents. To his right: three 49ers blocking four Cards.
Arizona, meanwhile, was in what Jones calls a “sub package” on defense – he’d subbed out the field goal block unit, but still needed to get two more guys in the field. In the fog of battle, that never happened.
“It was a FUBAR on my part,” he admits, “that turned into a a great opportunity for Tommy Kelly.”
Kelly’s heroism was made possible by defensive tackle Dan Williams, who is merely 6-3, 327 pounds, making him, on this unit, a vest pocket lineman, almost a mascot. While Williams doesn’t block kicks, he is useful at stoving in the offensive line, putting guards on roller skates, making alleys for his mates.
Before Dawson’s attempt, says Campbell, "Dan told me, 'You should rush the 'A' gap, 'cause I'm killing this guy.' Instead we put Tommy there." After Kelly’s block, Williams turned to the two taller men, crowing, "I told you boys."
As blocked kicks often do, this one turned the tide, serving as a kind of coup de grace. The rest of the day, the 49ers never got past their own 20.
"It was a great team win," said the Kangol-topped Arians after the game. "Everybody who had a hand in it," he paused here, having backed himself into a rhetorical cul-de-sac, "had a hand in it."
Or, in one case, a bruised forearm.