Trailing by two touchdowns against the Dolphins on Sunday, the Patriots got a much-needed stop when they forced Miami to go three-and-out in the final moments of the third quarter.
Or so they thought.
Dolphins punter Michael Palardy booted the ball to Gunner Olszewski, who waved for a fair catch at the New England 16-yard line. The only problem was officials threw a flag because Patriots defensive tackle Lawrence Guy had lined up illegally over the center.
As a result, the Dolphins maintained possession, ran six more plays, took five minutes off the clock, and kicked a field goal for a three-score lead in the fourth quarter.
“Stuff like that just kills you,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said after the loss. “It’s disappointing. We’ve got to get it fixed. I mean, we can’t have that stuff keep happening.”
The sequence was just one of several uncharacteristic mistakes made by the Patriots this season on special teams, typically an area of strength for a Bill Belichick-coached squad. Outside of kicker Nick Folk, who has converted 92.3 percent of his field goal attempts, the unit’s performance has left much to be desired on multiple occasions.
Sunday’s broadcast at one point showed special teams coordinator Cam Achord throwing a tablet into the ground on the sideline.
“Just a little bit of frustration,” he said. “We’re on to this week. We’re moving on and getting ready to compete against Buffalo.”
The Patriots will certainly need to clean things up if they want to advance in the playoffs. The examples of special teams missteps are plentiful this season.
Against Indianapolis in Week 15, their errors led to 10 points.
At the end of the first quarter, Jake Bailey’s punt was blocked by Colts linebacker Matthew Adams and returned for a touchdown, extending Indianapolis’s lead to 14-0. Belichick’s explanation for the breakdown was simple: “We didn’t block the guy.”
Then in the third quarter, the Colts settled for a 46-yard field goal attempt. Michael Badgley missed wide right, but he ended up getting another shot, 5 yards closer, because linebacker Brandon King jumped offside. Badgley converted to give the Colts a 20-0 lead.
Against Buffalo in Week 13, the Patriots elected to deploy wide receiver N’Keal Harry as a punt returner for the first time all season. The questionable decision — amid extreme wind — did not pay off, as Harry muffed Matt Haack’s punt. Bills cornerback Siran Neal recovered the ball at New England’s 14-yard line, setting up Buffalo’s lone touchdown.
In Week 4 against Tampa Bay, Slater forced Jaydon Mickens to fumble on a punt return, and Jakob Johnson recovered for the Patriots at Tampa’s 34-yard line. But the turnover was nullified because Slater had run out of bounds and, according to the officials, did not make an attempt to get back inbounds fast enough. Bailey had to punt again.
In Week 3 against New Orleans and Week 6 against Dallas, Bailey had punts blocked. Heading into this season, the Patriots had never had more than one punt blocked in a season under Belichick. In fact, in 15 of Belichick’s 22 seasons, they’ve had no punts blocked.
As for penalties? The Patriots were whistled for 16 penalties on special teams this season, tied for ninth most in the NFL. Last season, the Patriots committed the seventh-fewest penalties on special teams. In 2019, they tied for third fewest.
The Patriots have not shared much about the errors, other than that the team needs to execute better and play more disciplined football.
So, what is Achord’s message to the team ahead of the postseason?
“It’s a fresh start,” he said Tuesday. “What we’ve done in the past is in the past. The only thing that matters is what we do moving forward. As long as you’re putting your best product on the field and you’re doing techniques fundamentally sound, hopefully you can do enough to make a positive impact in the game.”
His message echoed what players and coaches have said about other phases of the game.
“Guys have to realize that and whatever we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter,” Achord said. “The only things that matter are from this point forward.”
Achord acknowledged the forecasted frigid temperatures will have an impact Saturday night, especially on the flight of the ball and the distance it travels. But he also noted that the Patriots’ level of familiarity with Highmark Stadium will be beneficial in identifying important indicators and understanding the wind patterns.
Regardless of what the weather brings, Achord is aware his group can’t end up making some of the same mistakes that have plagued the team headed into Saturday.
“It’s the one-and-done mentality,” he said. “We put everything in. We have to fill the tank up. We’ve got to put everything into this one because at the end of the day if we don’t come out on top, it’s over.”