Anatomy of Agnew’s game-altering return for Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

East Rutherford, N.J. — Winning plays sometimes come from where you least expect them.

A year ago, Jamal Agnew was playing cornerback and returning punts in front of several hundred fans each week at the University of San Diego. On Monday night, as a Detroit Lions rookie, he put the exclamation point on an impressive road win in primetime.

The play was an important one from the start. Agnew, who won a tightly contested competition for the punt return job this offseason, had muffed a punt in the preseason. With the Lions holding a one-score edge early in the fourth quarter, he couldn’t afford a similar mistake.

Giants punter Brad Wing has a career average of 45.0 yards per boot, and with only a slight breeze rolling through MetLife Stadium, Agnew lined up at an appropriate depth to field a typical Wing punt. But it was far from a typical punt. He got all of it, a 59-yard blast that had maximum arch and hangtime, sending Agnew scrambling backward.

And as punt returners are trained to do, Agnew quickly took his eye off the ball when he was confident he had a bead on its trajectory, assessing how his blocking was lining up and mentally preparing for his first move. But Agnew slightly overshot the punt’s depth and found himself reaching out to pluck the ball off his shoe tops amidst the standard chaos of a return.

“It ended up a little bit short and I had to improvise a little bit,” Agnew said. “I’m just thankful I caught that.”

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Agnew was gracious to his teammates after the game, crediting them for blocking the play well, but he had the Giants gunner, wide receiver Roger Lewis, in his face almost immediately. It was Agnew’s decision to immediately turn left after corralling the ball that led Lewis back into the block of cornerback Nevin Lawson.

From there, a lane was established thanks to a well-executed block from Quandre Diggs on Dwayne Harris, one of the NFL’s premier special-teams players who had seven coverage tackles during his Pro Bowl campaign in 2016.

From the moment Agnew caught the ball, he was looking for No. 51, Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie. The Lions don’t block the long snapper, it’s the return man’s job to make him miss. Four yards into brining it back, Agnew planted hard off his left foot and cut back inside, using DeOssie’s momentum against him and getting by untouched.

Thirteen yards in, Agnew was finally hit. Fullback Rhett Ellison, who carries a 60-pound weight advantage, tried to wrap Agnew up, but he spun through the attempt, barely breaking stride.

Agnew’s next priority was to locate Wing, the other unblocked player.

The poor punter never stood a chance. They rarely do. Agnew cut back hard inside a second time, and Wing flailed at where Agnew had been a quarter-second before.

After the game, Agnew joked about his fear of getting dropped by the last line of defense.

“If you get tackled by a punter, you can’t be returning back there,” Agnew said. “I didn’t want to let that happen.”

With 60 yards to pay dirt, it turned into a footrace, and no one was going to catch the speedy Agnew, who reportedly ran a 4.34-second 40 at his pro day this past spring.

The 88-yard touchdown return was the fifth-longest in team history. It was the first by a rookie since Eddie Drummond in 2002. The game-altering play further bolstered Agnew’s early resume, after a strong debut a week earlier.

But even with the primetime touchdown, his teammates weren’t about to let it go to his head.

“To be honest, they were like, ‘Great job, Rook, but you’re still a rook,’ ” Agnew said. “It’s a long season, so I have to keep producing, keep letting it come to me. I can’t be forcing stuff now.

“I still have to earn my stripes. It’s got to be a full body of work.”