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Patriots’ special teams unit was . . . special

Patriots special teams ace Nate Ebner — of Olympic rugby fame — jarred the ball from the Texans’ Tyler Ervin on a kickoff return in the third quarter.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

FOXBOROUGH — Stephen Gostkowski has booted more than 650 kickoffs over the course of his 11-year NFL career, but on Thursday he said this season is the most fun he’s had on kickoffs in a long time.

Can you blame him?

In a game in which New England was actually outgained by the road team, the Patriots took advantage of a new touchback rule to force two special teams turnovers en route to a 27-0 win over the Houston Texans Thursday night.

“We punted well, we covered well, we covered our kicks well, we had a couple chances in the return game, and we converted our scoring opportunities, so the entire special teams unit and the coaching staff did a tremendous job tonight,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We obviously needed that, and they really delivered it.”


In the offseason, NFL owners voted to move touchbacks from the 20- to the 25-yard line. The idea, in principle, was to discourage returns and the high-speed collisions that come with them.

Through three games, the Patriots have turned this idea on its head. Instead of booting the ball to the back of the end zone, Gostkowski will employ what’s known as a mortar kickoff by lifting the ball high and short. This brings the returner out into the field of play while also granting the coverage team ample time to get down the field.

Video: Volin & McBride analyze Patriots-Texans

Late in the first quarter, a mortar kick changed the game. After knocking in a 24-yard field goal for the first points of the game, Gostkowski lofted a kickoff toward the corner of the end zone. Texans return man Charles James took a few steps forward, then hopped back into the end zone to catch the ball. With both feet behind the goal line, he ran the ball out and into a crowd of Patriots.


Clay Harbor went low, diving at James’s feet, and Brandon Bolden went high. Bolden’s left arm collided with the ball to jar it free, and Duron Harmon dived for the recovery at the 22-yard line.

Seven seconds of game action later, New England scored its first touchdown of the night on a Jacoby Brissett 27-yard run.

After another field goal in the third quarter, Gostkowski again encouraged a return with a short kickoff. Houston’s Tyler Ervin fumbled after a hard hit from Patriot Nate Ebner, and again New England capitalized with its second touchdown of the day. Now up 20, the play essentially sealed the game for the Patriots.

“It’s pretty intimidating when we have 10 guys inside the 20 waiting for them,” Gostkowski said. “Who knows, maybe I’ll even run down there one time.”

Field position was also critical, particularly because the Texans didn’t cross midfield until late in the third quarter. Punter Ryan Allen was a big reason why. Of his seven boots, six landed inside the 20-yard line. Five were inside the 15. The Texans didn’t return a single punt.

“That was unbelievable,” Matthew Slater said. “I can’t say enough good things about what he did tonight. I know he’s feeling good and been chomping at the bit to come out and have a great game, and he did exactly that.”

Added Belichick: “It seemed like they had to go 90 yards every time they had the ball.”


If Gostkowski was having fun, Texans returners were certainly not. On a third-quarter return, Ervin let a punt land in front of him and then crowded the ball on the bounce, maybe the first thing you learn not to do in punt return school. And late in the fourth quarter, Ervin called for a fair catch at his 2-yard line, the perfect ending to a night of miscues.

“The guys that we have covering kicks are so good and work really hard, it would be a shame to not give them a chance to make plays,” Gostkowski said. “We take pride in our special teams, and we’re not just going to give them 5 free yards without them earning it. Things have worked out for us so far, we’re going to keep our heads down and stay humble and continue to try and be a dominant special teams unit.”

Photos: Thursday night football at Gillette Stadium

Box score: Patriots vs. Texans

Everett Cook can be reached at evcook4@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @everettcook.