The plan, says Rudy Ford, is to become a starting NFL safety and the best all-around player he can be. For now, though, Ford has his sights set on the Pro Bowl – as a special teams ace. He is, he says, “making my bones” on special teams and he’s doing it as well as anybody in the league as a gunner in the punt cover game.
Do you ever, even for a moment, pay attention to one of the most difficult jobs in the game of football? They’re the guys who line up wide on punts, often face double-team blocking, get the snot knocked out of them after the ball is snapped, and then, once they break free from the blocks, have to sprint 50, 60 yards and get to the punt return man in time to halt any progress.
This is not an easy job. This is not a job for the faint of heart. There is not a lot of glory, and it certainly takes a lot of guts. Once the play starts, watch out. It gets ugly out there.
“It’s definitely real physical, man. It’s like being in the trenches at times especially when you’re going against two guys,” said Ford, acquired by the Eagles in a trade with Arizona late in the preseason primarily because the Eagles thought he could make a difference on special teams. “It’s like being in the 3 technique. You’re being double-teamed. Both sides are coming off the ball hard. You have to work your technique, you keep your feet moving, fight off two blocks, and then bust it and get down the field to the punt returner. I love it. I love the challenge.”
Ford has been great, as has the entire punt coverage team. Punter Cameron Johnston is having a second terrific season, with a gross average of 47.8 yards per kick. That’s a fine number, sixth best in the NFL, but it’s not the key statistic in the punting game. While the gross number gets the attention, it’s the net number that really matters, and in that category Johnston’s 44.7-yard average is fourth best in the NFL. That's a full 2 yards better than his net average of 42.7 yards a year ago, when he finished tied for third in the league and set a new single-season franchise record.
That’s impressive stuff.
“Our gunners do an amazing job. They’re double-teamed a lot of times and they beat it and they’re just flying down the field. I don’t think they get enough credit,” said Johnston, who has done his part with excellent directional kicking and wonderful touch, landing 11 of his 19 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard lines. “They have to go all the way across the field and get to the football and they have to beat blockers and just keep running as fast as they can. It’s amazing. They’re doing a really, really good job.
“If they force a fair catch, the play is eliminated. It’s a win for the punting team. That’s massive when you get that on Sundays. Earlier this year, Mack Hollins got down the field and downed the punt at the 1-yard line (in Atlanta). Those kinds of plays can change a football game.
“It’s a team effort. You can punt the ball as far as you want, but you really have to put some direction on the ball and some hang time and give the gunners a chance to get down the field and make plays. The gross punting average is what, I think, the fans notice, but the net punting average is the more important statistic and it’s all dependent on the entire coverage team.”
Hollins has been a standout when he’s been healthy on special teams since the Eagles selected him in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He missed all of 2018 with a sports hernia, but came back this year and played gunner for the first four games. The Eagles went with newly signed cornerback Ryan Lewis last week against New York, primarily because Lewis ran a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash in his Pro Day at the University of Pittsburgh, and the gunner position requires speed, speed, and more speed.
Lewis helped Johnston average a net of 44.4 yards against the Jets, his third-best net performance of the season, recording one assisted tackle.
The Eagles have always placed a priority on special teams excellence, and they’ve got some depth at a position that nobody pays attention to, but that is critical – Gunner.
“All you really gotta do is want it more than the guy across from you. Obviously, in all of football, you’ve got to want it more, but that’s one play where you can easily tell which player really didn’t want it,” Hollins said. "You go all out, run as fast as you can, and it’s a track meet to see who gets to the returner first. I really enjoy that. It’s one of my favorite plays on the field. It’s all out, and you either win or you lose.
“It’s like a 60-yard sprint while you get beat up. It’s quite the experience. Unless you’ve done it, you don’t understand it.”
Ford wasn’t drafted, but he played in 23 games over two seasons with Arizona, largely on special teams where he could utilize his speed. Ford was recorded as running the 40-yard dash at 4.34 seconds at Auburn’s Pro Day prior to the 2017 NFL Draft.
“You need speed. You don’t need to be the fastest guy, but you need to play fast,” Hollins said. “That’s kind of the way it is. There are some guys who are track fast and there are some guys who are football fast. You want a guy who is football fast. He can run a 4.8 on tape but he’s going to go out there and be the first guy down every time.”
Said Ford: “You’re stressing yourself to the max on every play. It turns into a track meet. You have to max out speed every time. I face a lot of double teams. You have to be able to beat two guys and they can grab you, hold you. It’s almost like a fistfight. You need lateral quickness, straight-line speed – everything that you know to be able to beat two people.”
And then when the gunner gets to the return man, he has to have the energy to finish the play. You see defenders surrounding a return man calling for a fair catch and you wonder what is being said on the field, tricks of the trade, anything to distract a return man.
Hollins said he’ll research the return man and, if he has energy left, say something to try to distract. Never anything dirty, says Hollins. Ford doesn’t talk. He’s done all of his film study during the week and he lets his play do the talking.
“I always anticipate. By the time the game starts, I’ve watched a lot of film so I’m prepared. I play both sides – a gunner when we’re punting and a jammer when we’re returning a punt – so I’m always thinking about what a guy would try to do to me and what I would do to him. I always have those things in my mind. You’ve got to use your technique and you have to stress yourself to the max,” Ford said.
“I definitely want to be a Pro Bowl player on special teams. I want to be a starter in this league. Those are goals. But you have to make your bones first on special teams. That’s a true statement. My bones are on special teams right now. I believe I’m a dynamic player and I thank the good Lord for giving me these gifts. My job is to go out there and do it on every play.”