There really are three phases of the game in New England, where special teams get special attention under Bill Belichick.
Last season, the Patriots special teams units contributed more toward winning games than all but two other teams, according to the statistical researchers at Football Outsiders. A major part of that was that the Patriots defense enjoyed the best starting field position of any team in the league.
The Patriots have always devoted a high number of roster spots to pure special teams players. It was a surprise this week to see running back Brandon Bolden sign with Miami after getting cut, as he’d been a core special teamer in New England since 2012. Special teams play is always an underrated factor in how the 53-man roster is built, though, and this year was no exception.
Along with kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Ryan Allen, and long snapper Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King, Geneo Grissom, and Nicholas Grigsby made the Patriots roster exclusively — or very close to that — for their special teams contributions. Via trade in the spring, the Patriots added one of the best kickoff-return men in the league in Cordarrelle Patterson.
As Belichick illustrated during training camp, though, building a special teams unit goes beyond those key players.
“Certainly in the kicking game, where you have, let’s call it a minimum of 66 players, right? Not counting some specialty situations like the hands team and kickoff after a safety and things like that, but just the big four — kickoff, kickoff return, punt, and punt return — and then you have field goal and field goal block, that’s 66 spots that you have to have somebody behind the primary guy in each spot,” said Belichick.
“So, you start doing the math. I mean, you can’t get one guy to back up each spot, so we have to develop that type of depth for ourselves, particularly in the kicking game.”
Let’s go through those four main units plus the kicking team on field goals and extra points and see what’s new for 2018:
Last year, Gostkowski’s ability to place kickoffs down by the goal line encouraged Patriots opponents to return them 58.6 percent of the time, the third-highest rate in the NFL.
Most of the time, the returners would have been better off with a touchback, and the Patriots defense was the beneficiary, with opponents starting their drives on average from the 24-yard line.
The touchback rule is permanent now, and a 34-year-old kicker like Gostkowski shouldn’t be slowing down because of age.
What’s new are the rules, which were changed in an effort to take the most violent hits out of the kickoff. The changes aren’t drastic for the kicking team. The 10 non-kicking players now have to line up 1 yard behind the 35-yard line, which eliminates the running start they used to get when they could line up as deep as the 30. There must be five players on each side of the ball, with at least two outside the numbers.
“The new rules aren’t really new rules,” Belichick said in August. “They’ve taken out a couple things. They haven’t really changed anything. I mean, you still can block who you can block. They took out the wedge and they changed a couple of alignments, but that’s not really — I mean, there’s a lot of teams that lined up five by five to kick the ball off.”
The NFL had better hope something changed, because there were more concussions per play on kickoffs than any other type of play in football last year. And while there were plenty of teams that lined up five by five, the Patriots weren’t always one of them.
A sprinter’s quick start will be helpful here. Slater, Jonathan Jones, Ebner, Rex Burkhead, Patrick Chung, King, Grissom, Jacob Hollister, Grigsby, Keion Crossen, and Jason McCourty have all worked as coverage players on this unit. Slater and Jones in particular have that skill.
■ Kickoff returns
Dion Lewis returned 23 kicks for 24.8 yards per return as the Patriots’ primary kickoff man in 2017. Normally that would be hard to replace, since Lewis now plays for the Titans. Enter Patterson, a two-time All-Pro because of his special teams abilities.
Patterson returned 49 kicks, for an average of 28.3 yards, in 2017 with the Raiders. The Patriots clearly did not want to kick to him when they played Oakland in Mexico City last year.
Patterson didn’t get to return anything in the preseason, so it figures his first chance will come in Week 1. Keep an eye out.
“I’ve been watching him since he came in the league, and I think we’ve talked at length about what he has from a physical standpoint that has enabled him to have success in this league,” said Slater, a longtime special teams captain. “His size, his speed, you know he runs through a lot of arm tackles. I can attest to that, personally.”
Patterson will get good blocking from a combination of Slater, Hollister, King, Ebner, James Develin, Dwayne Allen, Grigsby, Jeremy Hill, J.C. Jackson, Grissom, and Chris Hogan.
The new rules play a bigger factor for the return team than the kicking team. Eight of the players on the return team must line up in a 15-yard “setup zone” between their 40-yard line and the opponents’ 45-yard line. This leaves three players — the returner and two blockers — deep. Blockers used to be allowed to line up anywhere, as long as they had 10 yards of space from the kicking team.
Because more blockers are closer to midfield, they will have to run downfield with the coverage team. Wedge blocks, where players link arms to create a wall, are illegal.
This is an adjustment for veterans such as Slater, but the wholesale impact of the rules could create more space for big returns. Patterson would be able to take advantage of that.
“I’m thankful that they were willing to save the play and make changes as opposed to just abolishing the play,” Slater said. “Hopefully the changes yield the results that we’re looking for from a player-safety standpoint and, hopefully, they still provide the excitement that the kickoff has always provided.”
Reports of a punter competition were greatly exaggerated. The big-legged Corey Bojorquez didn’t have the savvy placement ability of the veteran Allen, and he never got a chance.
Allen averaged 43.4 yards per punt last season and was another component in the defense enjoying such long fields. Allen landed only 24 punts inside the 20, but the coverage unit allowed only 105 punt-return yards, third-fewest in the NFL.
Slater, a seven-time Pro Bowler, and Patterson are two of the best gunners in football. Jones is excellent as well. Jackson and Crossen, whose special teams potential factored heavily into why they made the team, worked as gunners during the summer.
King, Hollister, Develin, Ebner, Grigsby, and Grissom can fill out the coverage unit, and Cardona is as steady as they come at long snapper. It’s not flashy, but this is one of the Patriots’ best areas.
■ Punt returns
One new mystery is who will return punts while Julian Edelman is suspended.
The primary suspects in camp — Braxton Berrios, Riley McCarron, and Cyrus Jones — either went on injured reserve (Berrios) or didn’t make the team (McCarron and Jones).
Chung and Burkhead are possibilities, as is Patterson, who has been a kick returner for his career but got in the game as a punt returner in the preseason. He’s the wild card because of his big-play potential.
Slater, Jones, Chung, King, Burkhead, McCourty, Ebner, Grigsby, Grissom, and Hill can be penciled in as blockers. Hill probably would have beaten out Mike Gillislee in training camp anyway, but the fact that he proved himself on special teams couldn’t have hurt.
“He’s done a good job in all the areas we’ve asked him to work in: running the ball, passing game, special teams,” Belichick said. “So I think he has some versatility and has some experience, obviously, and had production for us, not only in preseason games but also in practices.”
■ Field goals/extra points
Gostkowski made 37 of 40 field goal attempts in 2017, not far off from his 45-of-47 mark on extra points.
All three of his misses were from 40-plus yards, though he was 4 for 4 from more than 50 yards. Altitude or not, his long of 62 yards in Mexico City was a sight to see.
Cardona and Allen are a good setup unit as long snapper and holder, and this unit should continue to be strong.