After special teams helped lead the Patriots to victory in back-to-back games, the unit faltered in key moments down the stretch in the loss to Minnesota.
The Patriots took the lead in the third quarter Thursday night in Minneapolis on a 37-yard score by tight end Hunter Henry, but proceeded to immediately give up a 97-yard kickoff return for a tying touchdown. Up until that point, the Vikings’ kickoff returns had gone for 18, 19, and 13 yards.
“The other returns, I think they got to the 20-yard line or not much past that,” coach Bill Belichick said Friday. “But, obviously, [the 97-yard touchdown] was a bad play. We just had a couple of breakdowns on the play.”
Patriots special teams coordinator Cam Achord stressed the importance of players beating their one-on-one blocks in order to make tackles.
“I got to do a better job of getting our guys to use their hands, getting off blocks, and getting to the football right there,” Achord said Saturday. “Being able to shed the blocks at the point of attack, that way you’re able to come off and make the tackle.”
On a replay of the sequence, it looked as though the Vikings’ C.J. Ham held the Patriots’ Kyle Dugger as returner Kene Nwangwu made his way around him and up the sideline. None of the officials threw a flag, despite requests from captain Matthew Slater. Belichick, though, noted that there were multiple things the Patriots could have done better.
With the score tied again in the fourth quarter after the teams traded field goals, the Patriots’ defense forced the Vikings to punt from their 36-yard line. However, rookie Pierre Strong ran into punter Ryan Wright while trying to block the kick. A flag was thrown on this play, and the 5-yard penalty gave Minnesota a first down. The Vikings scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later.
According to Achord, Strong needs to improve his angle of entry so that he ensures he stays in front of the punter, as well as his timing so that he backs off once the ball leaves the punter’s foot.
“There’s some fundamental techniques we obviously have to work on and improve on,” Achord said. “You don’t want to run into the punter, especially in those situations. Obviously, we’re aggressive-minded, and we were trying to make a play right there.
“Pierre is running the call on the field that I was able to make. Obviously, if you execute it there, you make a game-changing play the other way. We got to just improve on the fundamentals, coming off the edge.”
Strong, a running back who does not have a role in the offense, has been on the field for 28.96 percent of New England’s special teams snaps. He took ownership for his mistake after the game.
“Bad play by me,” he said. “I’ve gotta learn from it and grow from it. So, it’s on me.”
Red-zone answers as tough to come by as TDs
The Patriots appear to be unable to explain the offense’s poor performance in the red zone, but they know the conversion rate needs to improve.
New England is scoring a touchdown on just 38.7 percent of its red-zone trips. The Patriots and Broncos (36.4 percent) are the only NFL teams scoring a touchdown on fewer than 40 percent of drives inside the 20-yard line.
“It’s a critical area of the field,” offensive play-caller Matt Patricia said. “It’s a tough area of the field. Certainly, the plays happen faster. Everything happens quicker from that standpoint. Everything is condensed. We had some opportunities the other day that were good, but we’re all just trying to do a better job of trying to get the ball in the end zone.”
Neither the players nor the coaching staff point to something specific when asked about the struggles of finishing drives. All point to the team’s ability to move the ball in the middle of the field, saying they just need to continue to execute.