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Gunning For Coverage

Posted Dec 21, 2012

Zastudil, Adams, Bethel make up effective trio on punts

 
Gunner Michael Adams jumps on a muffed punt return that he caused during the Cardinals' win over Detroit last weekend.

That they even have come together on is a story to itself, a veteran punter whose injuries came close to ending his career, a 5-foot-7 once-undrafted overachiever that has defied the odds for six seasons and a small-school rookie who had no idea how to play in the NFL once he arrived.

Yet Dave Zastudil has had a renaissance kicking for the Cardinals this season, crucial given how many times the struggling offense has been forced to punt, and to have a pair of “gunners” – the outside men first charged with reining in the punt returner – like Michael Adams and Justin Bethel have turned that unit into an effective weapon.

“That relationship is huge between gunner and punter,” Zastudil said. “As a punter it makes your job easier, when you have a coverage unit that takes it so seriously.”

The trio had arguably their best collective game of the season last week against the Lions. Zastudil dropped six of his punts inside the 20-yard line, one of which Adams created a Detroit muff and then recovered to set up Arizona’s first touchdown.

Bethel, meanwhile, sprinted downfield to twice force fair catches by Lions return man Stefan Logan on punts of 54- and 55-yards – a result teams can’t much improve upon.

“I told Justin, he’s been stealing my shine,” Adams said. “Everyone is talking so good about him, and I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m still making plays too. I joke with him. But I think we are both doing a phenomenal job of just doing our jobs.”

It’s lost somewhat, the role such men play on a team. No one wants to talk about punting anyway, because to punt is to mean the offense wasn’t able to complete its ultimate goal of scoring.

Success though, has been evident with Zastudil’s ninth-ranked net-yardage average (41.2 yards a kick) and his record-threatening 38 punts downed inside the 20. When you have a defense that has been as effective as the Cards have had, avoiding field flips or scores on special teams puts the Cards ahead of the game.

Adams has long been part of the process. Back in 2009, he and LaRod Stephens-Howling were the gunners as then-punter Ben Graham tied the NFL record (42) of punts inside the 20. But by 2011, the Cardinals wanted someone with more consistency than Graham. They turned to Zastudil, who had been out of football for a year-and-a-half recovering from knee surgery.

Zastudil thought he career might be over. Special teams coach Kevin Spencer championed his signing, hoping the Cards “would find a nugget.” They seemed to have done just that.

The same could be said for Bethel, the sixth-round pick from Presbyterian who needed a wake-up call after a spectacular preseason devolved into a disappointing run during the regular season.

“At the beginning of the year I was like, ‘Oh, I made the team,’ ” Bethel said. “The typical, ‘I made the team, I’m here now (and I don’t have to work hard).’  As the season went on, I wasn’t playing at the level I should have been playing on special teams. During one of the meetings they said something to me, and they really got in on me. I saw what they meant and took it to heart.”

Being called out in front of the entire unit resonated. Bethel began working harder with Adams and gaining knowledge of the “little things” Adams had learned as six years as a gunner.

One of those teaching moments came in the game. After seeing Bethel miss on a couple of chances, Adams was harping on the rookie to push his blocker into the return man if given the opportunity. Adams had that chance himself against the Lions, and Adams made sure to show his protégé what he meant.

The Lions’ collision forced a loose ball Adams recovered, leading to a touchdown.

“If I’m doing well but he’s doing bad, I’m not going to be able to make plays because they’ll just run away from me,” Adams said.

Zastudil stresses the entire punt cover unit has been impressive. Helping Adams and Bethel on the outside has been the added threat of punt-protector Rashad Johnson, who has broken off two long runs on fakes this season. If a team wants to watch Johnson, they have to single either Adams or Bethel. And both players have been adept of late of beating double-teams anyway.

It starts with the punt, which Zastudil can handle. Often, it ends quickly, because of Adams and Bethel.

“It’s to the point, we don’t have to talk. We know he’s going to give us a good kick,” Bethel said. “And even if he doesn’t kick it as good as he wants, regardless of what happens, we will get down there and make a play and it will all work out.”

PLAZA OPENS EARLY

While Sunday’s game doesn’t kick off until 2:25 p.m., the plaza at University of Phoenix Stadium will open early, at 10:45 a.m., so fans can get through screening. The stadium still does not open until 90 minutes prior to kickoff for non-premium seat holders, but food and beverage options will be available on the plaza, in addition to entertainment at Gate 2. Anyone with food or beverage purchased on the plaza can bring it into the stadium when the doors open.

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