FOXBOROUGH — Before last week, the last time Patriots fans concerned themselves with Griff Whalen was after the receiver snapped the ball during the Colts infamous fake punt debacle in 2015. Needless to say, the cries for Whalen to bail out the special teams unit that emanated from Gillette Stadium Sunday night would have been unexpected back then.
It was an interesting night for the unit which was, uh, a bit more special than usual in the Patriots win over the Ravens.
We’ll start with what was good. Linebacker Shea McClellin came up with one of the plays of the game when he jumped over the line to block what could have been Ravens kicker Justin Tucker’s 35th consecutive made field goal.
McClellin said that the Patriots coaching staff came to him earlier in the week and suggested he practice the play. He watched plenty of Tucker’s film and said he picked up a few cues that helped his timing though, of course, he declined to say what those were.
“It’s a lot of things, it’s the guys up front making sure they hold those guys down so that they don’t jump up into me when I’m jumping, getting the right height and, I think the most important thing is probably the timing for sure,” McClellin said. “Because if you’re there two seconds before they snap it it’s like a penalty, so, we could have got a penalty but fortunately it worked out.
McClellin’s hops were reminiscent of Jamie Collins, who made a similar play against the Colts last season.
“I remember watching that, actually,” McClellin said. “I just remember him skyrocketing over the center and blocking the kick. I think I was watching it at home and I was like ‘wow, that guy’s a beast.’ He’s a freak. That’s Jamie, though.”
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was a perfect four-for-four on extra points and punter Ryan Allen netted 43.7 yards per punt. Allen had two punts downed at the one- and two-yard lines, aided by excellent plays by cornerback Jonathan Jones.
“It takes a collective group effort to make those plays happen,” Allen said. “If our gunners don’t get a good release and can’t play the ball, or if they’re in the white and come back in they’re not allowed to play the ball, so it’s just all of us sticking to our technique and doing our job and we did a good job tonight.”
Unfortunately, the remaining memorable special teams plays were bad and some of them were very, very ugly. In the third quarter, the Ravens scored two touchdowns in less than two minutes thanks to two special teams turnovers.
“All situations that I would say were pretty preventable,” Bill Belichick said, succinctly.
The first came on a muffed punt by Cyrus Jones, who now has five fumbles on the season. Baltimore set up at the Patriots three-yard line and, two plays later, the Ravens scored their first touchdown of the game.
It seemed impossible that Jones would get another shot. But there he was, deep with Matthew Slater to return the following kickoff. When the kick went up, it seemed merciful that the it was headed in Slater’s direction, but fumblitis is apparently contagious.
Slater, too, lost the ball and the Ravens, again, got another quick touchdown.
On the following kickoff, running backs Dion Lewis and James White were back as the return-men. Lewis knelt for a touchback and got sarcastic cheers from the crowd. Jones was done for the night as a returner and the Patriots also experimented with Patrick Chung and Julian Edelman paired up deep.
Whalen, who the Patriots signed last week, was inactive for the game but is an experienced returner, hence the calls for him to save the day.
The Patriots would love for Jones, who was the best return man in college football last year at Alabama, to be a reliable special teamer. Having players like Edelman or Lewis returning kicks is quite the gamble, which is why Jones has had a relatively long leash. It’s hard to fathom that he couldn’t be at the end of it, though his teammates continue to be supportive.
“I’ve been in that situation so those guys work hard weekly. Slate, Cyrus, and sometimes that just happens,” Edelman said. “It’s unfortunate, we’ve got to get better, we’ve got to learn from it and it was good to get hit in the face and still go out and get a win.”
Edelman said he was confident Jones would bounce back.
“Just growing pains,” he said. “It’s going to make him tougher. You know, you can do two things from this: you can put yourself in a tank or you can work hard and get out of it and Cy works hard so I believe he’ll keep working hard.”
The question, now, is whether he’ll get the chance to.