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Patriots’ return units have had it covered

Special teams Matthew Slater captain (18) says the Patriots’ kick return unit is one of the fastest he’s been a part of.
Special teams Matthew Slater captain (18) says the Patriots’ kick return unit is one of the fastest he’s been a part of.BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF

FOXBOROUGH — It takes about four seconds of hang time for a football to travel through the air and land after a kickoff. After that, it’s a matter of seconds before the return team or coverage unit makes a play — fewer seconds when the coverage is good.

All this is to say that, next time you’re watching the Patriots, don’t dally during that commercial break. Get back to your seat. Some of the team’s best-executed plays may be coming while you’re still up grabbing another beer.

Indeed, the Patriots’ kickoff coverage unit has been one of the best in the NFL this season. New England is allowing opponents only 16.2 yards per return, second only to Denver (15.2). They’re ninth-best on punt coverage, allowing only 7 yards per return. If that advantage boils down to one thing, it’s speed.

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“I think about the units I’ve been a part of and I’d say this is the fastest unit that I’ve ever played on across the board,” said Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater. “We’ve been able to use that to our advantage by, as you’ve seen, not kicking touchbacks every time and letting our speed guys play fast and get down the field and not giving these offenses extra yards to get out there and line up with.”

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s leg has allowed the Patriots to subvert the NFL’s new touchback rule by forcing returns. Gostkowski’s kicks have excellent hang time, which gives the speedy coverage unit time to get downfield.

Even with Gostkowski, forcing returns requires trust in the coverage team to make tackles. The Patriots have kicked 16 touchbacks and kept the ball in play 14 times.

“I guess it depends on the situation and the time and place in the game,” Slater said.

On Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Patriots’ coverage team will face a Steelers unit with big-play ability.

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Return man is a high-risk job, and Pittsburgh is willing to deploy star wide receiver Antonio Brown on punt returns only because of his superlative skills. He has playmakers such as Shamarko Thomas there to help him, too.

“We’re kind of built around speed, but we’re going to need that speed this weekend,” Slater said.

On kickoffs, the Steelers have experimented with having two returners in the end zone. The purpose, in part, is to confuse the coverage team and give it multiple directional options depending on the placement of the kick.

But the Patriots have their own disguises. After the game against the Browns Oct. 9, Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained that at times he’ll have the kickoff coverage unit bunched together instead of spread out across the line before the kick.

“When you put a lot of players together it’s less defined for the return team who’s where,” Belichick said. “Who is the five? Who is the four? Who is the three? Who’s the safety?

“And also, possibly sometimes those alignments of players play into the direction of the kick. Some teams have a kick side, five guys on the kick side, five guys on the back side, so again, depending on how those players are distributed may give keys to the return team ahead of time.”

That strategy works well because the speed of the players in the coverage unit is relatively even. Not only do they line up close together, they stay close together as they run and further delay the return team’s ability to figure out who is going where.

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“We don’t have the same separation that we’ve had in past years where certain guys are able to pull away from other guys,” said special teamer Nate Ebner. “It’s a lot more evenly dispersed with guys running down the field.”

Ebner did plenty of running over the summer when he competed in rugby for the US Olympic team in Rio. He was excused from a portion of training camp to do so, and when he returned in August he had to get back into football shape.

Ebner said he’s gained a few pounds and is back to his playing weight from last season. He’s listed at 220 pounds.

“I’m working to get better, but for the most part I’m heading in the right direction and I would say from where I came from, from when I came back right in August, I’m in a much better place,” he said.

Ebner might still face an uphill battle in terms of putting up gaudy numbers (if special teams tackles can ever be gaudy). Players such as linebacker Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Jonathan Jones have jumped into the mix.

“I’ll just say it’s tougher to make tackles when you’ve got speed like that,” said Ebner. “You’ve got a bunch of guys running to make plays and you’d better get down there or you’re not going to make any.”

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Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com.