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Ventrone 'Most Dangerous' on 49ers Special Teams

Posted Dec 27, 2013

Bubba, as his teammates call him, often goes unnoticed on punts and kickoffs, but he has significant roles that can be easily explained.

Gunners get all the glory, or however much glory there is in playing special teams, football's third of three units.

C.J. Spillman, who received the most fan votes among Pro Bowl-eligible specialists, makes shoe-string tackles to blow up returns almost every Sunday. Kassim Osgood, another veteran with a specific role, fell on a forced fumble in Week 7 at Tennessee and blocked a punt in Week 14 against Seattle. Even rookie Darryl Morris, who has also lined up on the outside on punt plays, forced the Titans muff and gets some level of kudos below Colin Kaepernick's usual helping.

Then there’s Bubba Ventrone.

You might know his given name (Raymond), his jersey number (41) or just that his curly brown locks unfurl out of the back of his gold helmet.

Even if you're aware that this eighth-year pro is the 49ers so-called “special teams ace,” do you understand what he actually does on punts, kickoffs, punt returns and kickoff returns during a given NFL game?

We admit that we had our own questions.

So we posed the first one to Ventrone, one of the friendliest and fastest, shortest and strongest in San Francisco’s locker room, to discuss much more than his 11 tackles and Week 11 fumble recovery at New Orleans.

What do you really do on Sundays, Bubba?

“I don’t want to give too much away,” Ventrone said.

And then, standing in the sun and on the edge of the practice field, where a “Forty Niner Way” street sign leads into the team’s facility, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Ventrone gave away as much as he could without drawing the ire of Brad Seely. This is one man Ventrone would never want to upset.

"Brad's given me so many opportunities, and I've played really well within his scheme. I think he trusts me; he's wanted me where he's been," said Ventrone who filled a similar role for Seely in New England (2005-08), where Ventrone entered the league as an undrafted free agent, and Cleveland (2009-10). "I'm pretty much the same player that I've always been. I play fast, physical and I feel like I'm tough, and I feel like you need those qualities to play special teams.

"I've always had the mentality to play as hard as I can. A guy like Brad appreciates that about me. He knows I'm a guy that will run 100 miles an hour down the field and create havoc."

This is why Seely vouched for Ventrone over the summer, when Jim Harbaugh and Co. sought a replacement for another Seely disciple from the Browns, Blake Costanzo, whom the Chicago Bears signed away last offseason.

“I remember when we were signing Costanzo, who is a great special teams player, was a great special teams player for us" in 2011, Harbaugh said earlier this month. “We were looking at the tape, game tape, practice tape, and it’s like, ‘Was that our guy there with the long hair? Is that our guy? Because he’s pretty darn good too.’”

In advance of San Francisco's postseason-implicating matchup in Arizona on Sunday, where special teams will no doubt play a role and perhaps a game-changing role, we asked Ventrone to educate us on the duties of a penetrator and protector.

Those are his job titles. Here are his words.


Punts

Based on what the defense, the return team is doing, we have different types of blocking schemes to protect the punter. There are man schemes and zone schemes depending on how many guys they have rushing and what types of blocks they have. My job is to protect first and then release after the punt.

I’ll line up behind the line but in front of our punter. A lot of times it’s like being the safety of the defense because I might have to react to a teammate’s block; if he takes someone, then I have to react and get the other guy. A lot of times, I’ll play off of our inside guys. Before the play, I have an understanding who it could be potentially, and then sometimes I have to react fast and make a good decision.

When we're punt protecting at, say, the end of a game and they bring 10 guys to rush us and we only eight guys to block them, I will turn around and give Andy Lee a speed-it-up signal. At that point, we're just getting depth and blocking a gap. It tells Andy to speed up his approach so it takes less time to get the punt away so we don't have to protect it as long.

It's a lot more complicated than it seems, ha ha.

Once the punt is away, it’s full-steam ahead, down the field. A lot of times, the other team’s punt return unit will drop a guy before the returner to block the most dangerous guy. Ultimately, I want to get down field as fast as I can.

Some returners are north-south, some want to run outside. If we’re playing a guy that wants to get to the edge, we have to adjust our scheme.

Most coaches and special teams players play outside in to the ball, converging. So if I'm on the right side of the ball, the ball should never be on my right shoulder. I want to keep the ball inside me. If everybody is playing that way and trusting the guy next to him to do the same, everyone brings the ball together and the tackle is made. If a return hits the sideline, it’s because one side is getting completely walled off. You’ll see a lot of times, a guy, if he feels like the ball is getting outside of him, he’ll try to get outside of the ball and push it back to his help.

Stay in your lanes and keep the ball on your inside shoulder. This is the same for kickoff coverage.


Kickoffs

After a week of preparation, I know what our plan is, as far as who’s going to block me, what type of returns they’ll be running based on the strength of their returner – is he an up-the-field guy, is he a guy that likes to get outside.

There’s a lot of different keys whether it’s going to be left, right, middle that you look for. Certain players tip it off, certain leverage positions tip off the direction of the return.

My job on kickoffs, most weeks, is to be a penetrator, to get down the field fast, get to the ball and disrupt their return. Penetration kills returns.

If I’m taken care of by a blocker, then there’s space for the return to happen, but if I can avoid my guy and get near the ball – even if I don’t make the tackle – I’m usually going to eat up at least two guys, maybe more depending on what they’re doing. I'm being a selfless player in that way because it opens up teammates to make the tackle.

A lot of times I’m an inside player. When you’re a penetrator, the thought process is that if you’re on the inside, you can get to both sides of the field. 



Punt Return
s

There are two different types of mentalities: You’re attempting to block a punt – a rush – or you’re attempting a designed return left, right or middle.

We would choose to design a punt-block if we see a weakness in the other team before the game. A lot of times, they’re designed to beat a weakness, whether it be a player or some type of flaw of their scheme, like how they set.

Within a block, everybody rushes like they’re going to be the guy that rushes free or gets the block. Say there’s a blocked put on and we have eight guys rushing the punter. Each of the eight is in play; it’s not designed to get one free; it’s designed for everyone to get it depending on how they pick it up. They might not block it how you think they’re going to block it, so we all rush like we’re going to be the one that’s free.

Kassim’s against the Seahawks wasn’t even a designed block. He just saw something, we communicated on the sideline, and that was it. There are those kinds of unplanned things too. We're always communicating with the coach, telling him what we’re seeing, telling him what we’re getting on the field. That way, if there’s an opportunity later in the game, we can use something beneficial for our team. In that case, Kassim did just that.

For the returns, I’ll drop and be responsible for the most dangerous guy before the returner, or I’ll have to block a guy on the line of scrimmage and run with him downfield. I usually drop back in front of the returner, get my head around fast and depending, on what our return calls for, the first guy who I see is the guy I’m going to block. If we’re running a return to the right, I’ll use my body to shield him that way.

The term is leverage. You have right-side leverage, left-side leverage, and if it’s a middle return, you can block your guy into whatever direction you want.



Kickoff Return
s

These are very different from punt returns in the sense that we're a game-plan return team; we switch up the things that we do.

There are different levels the front row, the second row, and then the returner. I'm the center, directly in the middle of the field.

With specific landmarks on the field for each player, depending on his position, everyone has a different spot to drop to and block a certain a guy. This is for every single return.

Brad does a good job of studying the tape and understanding where players are going to be, where the coverage teams are going to be, so that when we're blocking these guys, we know where they're going to be. So if a return calls for me to drop back and set on the left hash at the 25-yard line, I know that the guy I'm going to be blocking is probably going to be within two to three yards of either side of me.

It creates spacing for the returner. It's spacing and timing. 

As the kick is made, I may point to my returner. Sometimes, we'll know the kicker's approach based on how many steps he's taking. That could tell us if he's kicking the ball left or right. A lot of kickers just kick the it down the middle, but there are some directional kickers. It helps the returner if I give him a heads-up. If it's to the right, for example, he can cheat a little bit over and have a better chance to catch the ball and go forward.