Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Punter Dave Zastudil and cover man Justin Bethel flip the field for Arizona Cardinals

By Kent Somers

October 9, 2013

When it comes to sexiness, punting is the flannel pajamas and pounding headache of football.

No one yells at the spouse and kids to run to the TV room because the punt team is running on the field.

But it’s an important part of the game, especially for a team with a terrible offense and a stout defense.

That’s why what punter Dave Zastudil and cover man Justin Bethel are doing is so important to the Cardinals. They have flipped field position when the offense hasn’t and are a big reason the team isn’t worse than 3-2.

“It started last year, really,” Bethel said. “Trusting — I trust he’s going to put the ball where he says he’s going to put it, and he trusts me to get down there and make the tackle. It’s a great combination.”

Zastudil has put 16 punts inside the 20-yard line, the most in the NFL this season. Of those 16, 10 have been downed inside the 10-yard line.

Last year, Zastudil set an NFL record with 46 downed inside the 20.

The Cardinals, of course, would prefer to see less of Zastudil and more of quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Zastudil’s heavy workload is a result of the Cardinals’ anemic offense. He punted 112 times in 2012, 21 more than the second-hardest-working man in the NFL punting business.

He’s punted 28 times this season, which means more than half of his kicks have been downed inside the 20 and 36 percent inside the 10.

This season, coach Bruce Arians has spent Mondays trying to explain what went wrong offensively the day before. That was true this week, too.

Until the offense can do more than “scratch some points out,” as Arians put it, the Cardinals will rely on defense and special teams.

That’s what they did last Sunday against the Panthers. A 56-yard punt by Zastudil from the Cardinals 29 contributed to Carolina starting a possession at their 21.

The defense sacked Cam Newton, and after a punt the Cardinals took over at their 46.

The offense didn’t do much but the Cardinals did get a field goal to tie the game at 3.

That’s scratching out points.

It isn’t attractive, and it probably won’t be enough to beat good teams. But it’s a big reason the Cardinals have more victories than 10 of the other 15 NFC teams.

What’s remarkable about Zastudil is that he missed half of the 2009 season and all of 2010 because of a severe knee problem. He was 32 and thinking that maybe his career was over when the Cardinals called in 2011.

Zastudil beat out Ben Graham for the job then and learned something in the process, too. Graham, who had played Australian Rules Football, was deadly at getting the ball to die deep in opponents’ territory.

He used the “Aussie kick,” which was brought to the NFL by former Chargers punter Darren Bennett. Zastudil watched how Graham did it and started to work on it.

“You drop the nose straight down and try to hit toward the bottom and middle of the ball,” Zastudil said.

The kick is even more effective when a team has a gunner with Bethel’s speed.

“Justin is one of the elite gunners in the league,” Zastudil said, “and the crazy thing is he’s getting better.”

Both Bethel and Zastudil know they aren’t going to receive much attention unless something goes wrong. Their names aren’t likely to show up in scoring summaries, but through five games, they have been the Cardinals’ most consistent offensive tool.

“I love doing what I do,” Zastudil said. “Coach Arians always says, ‘Know your role.’ I love doing my role. I’m just trying to get better. I still don’t think I’m hitting the ball exactly where I want to yet.”

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