FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots don’t have the special teams reputation of, say, Virginia Tech — at least not yet — but their penchant for blocking kicks this season has them successfully cloning a game-changing trait made popular by the Hokies.
Four kicks — three field goal attempts and one punt — have been blocked by the Patriots this season, the most by the team since 2002. Two of the blocks have been returned for touchdowns, including Sunday’s 62-yarder by Kyle Arrington after Jamie Collins swatted down a field goal try from Miami’s Caleb Sturgis.
Three kick blocks either produced points or directly led to a score. The fourth — Chris Jones’s field goal block on the final play of the game — preserved a 2-point home win over the Jets Oct. 16. The rematch between those AFC East teams comes Sunday at MetLife Stadium, with the Patriots needing a win to clinch at least a first-round playoff bye. A victory plus a Denver loss would guarantee homefield advantage throughout the playoffs for the Patriots.
They’ve positioned themselves as the No. 1 seed in the AFC and emerged as a strong contender to reach Super Bowl XLIX for a number of reasons: Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski on offense, Darrelle Revis on defense, Bill Belichick on the sideline. Not to be overlooked, though, is football’s third on-field component, because without special teams, the Patriots likely wouldn’t be 11-3. Stephen Gostkowski has missed only two kicks and the Patriots have returns of more than 80 yards on both punts and kickoffs.
But it’s the blocks that are starting to stand out.
“No easy explanation. It’s all work. You work at it, you try to set up a game situation in your mind, then you try to go out there and just do it,” said Brandon Bolden, whose block of a punt at San Diego led to a second-quarter touchdown. “We’ve just been extremely blessed with being in the right place at the right time. We’ve got a lot of hard-working guys that work at it. I don’t know if we can ever steal a page out of Virginia Tech’s book. It’s still a work in progress.”
Under coach Frank Beamer, the Hokies have scored 85 touchdowns on special teams, and blocked 134 kicks. But there’s a substantial difference between college football and the NFL, and you simply don’t see as many kicks blocked at the professional level. Prior to this season, it took the Patriots 83 regular-season games to block four kicks: field goal attempts in 2010 and 2013, a punt in 2010, and an extra point in 2008.
It’s taken them just 14 games in 2014 to block four more.
Surely there must be an art to it?
“I don’t know if there’s an art to it, there’s just a lot of relentless pressure,” said Chris Jones, whose field goal block against the Jets preserved the 27-25 win. “If they’re kicking, it’s either a field goal at the end of a long drive, or they’ve just scored a touchdown. We’re down some way: We’re either tired, or they scored and we’re upset about it. It’s getting back up from that and realizing that we have another opportunity to stop them.”
All four blocks this season have been big. Jones’s block on the final play meant victory. Chandler Jones also blocked a field goal attempt, picked up the ball, and took it back 58 yards for a touchdown with nine seconds left in the first half against the Vikings in Week 2. Instead of a 17-10 lead, the play gave the Patriots a 24-7 advantage. Bolden’s punt block late led to a touchdown that brought the Patriots within 14-13 at halftime against San Diego in a game they would win. The block by Collins and touchdown return by Arrington gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead before they ran an offensive play.
To the casual football fan watching either in the stadium or on television, punts and kicks look mostly the same: there’s a snap, a hold (if applicable), and a kick. But to the trained eye of a player or coach, there are always subtleties that can be picked up through diligent film study. The goal is to exploit those tendencies and take advantage with a positive play if opportunity strikes.
“It can be something very small. Let’s use my punt block as an example. Going into that week, [Chargers punter Mike Scifres] had a lot of depth, but he didn’t get any width in his protection. So I knew I could maybe bend the corner if I got a good jump,” Bolden said. “Some coaches will bring it to you, some stuff players pick up on. Me and [special teams captain Matthew Slater] talk about it all the time, because we play the same position on punt returns. We compare notes, then take that final exam on Sunday.”
That same attention to detail applies on successful kick blocks. Coach Bill Belichick, in a video posted this week to patriots.com, broke down the block by Collins and the return for a touchdown by Arrington. They weren’t the only players involved.
“Really a good team effort play,” Belichick said. “Alan Branch rides the tackle down, Sealver Siliga comes and knocks the tight end out, and Jamie shoots that gap, does a great job of coming through the line, flattening out and getting right to the target spot. Getting penetration is half the battle. The other half of the battle is being in the right spot to block it.
“Then both our corners, Devin [McCourty] on the defensive right side, and Kyle on the defensive left as they look at it, are in perfect position really to handle the blocked kick. Whichever way it comes out, then those guys are in position to scoop and score. Kyle does a good job of that, Devin comes in there and takes enough of [Dolphins holder Brandon] Fields to let Kyle get started. They’re not going to catch him.”
It’s already been a banner year for Scott O’Brien and Joe Judge, the Patriots special teams coaches. Neither has laid a hand on the ball during a game, but they’ve been instrumental behind the scenes.
The team’s commitment to special teams and the time devoted to it in practice has paid off in a number of ways. Some, such as Gostkowski making kick after kick, can go unnoticed. Others, such as four blocks — and counting — become unforgettable highlight plays.
“I think we’ve just got a lot of guys that really work hard and try hard, and that’s probably the No. 1 thing to blocking a kick,” Chris Jones said. “It’s never giving up. It’s potentially the last play of that drive, so you’ve got to give it your all on that play, even if you’re tired or disappointed.
“If you’re outworking and willing more than the other people on the line, we’re going to win that rep, and hopefully win it by blocking the kick.”