A year after the Patriots defense enjoyed the best average starting field position in football, opponents have returned 16 kickoffs for an average of 27.4 yards against their coverage.
“We’ve just got to do a better job,” coach Bill Belichick said on a conference call Tuesday. “It’s a multiple number of things. We’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to kick better. We’ve got to cover better. We need to tackle better. We’re just not doing a good job, period.”
The average kickoff return in the NFL this year has been 23 yards, and the Patriots’ coverage ranks 30th.
Kansas City returned five kickoffs for 190 yards in Sunday’s 43-40 loss to the Patriots, highlighted by Tremon Smith’s 97-yard return in the fourth quarter that set up a touchdown to give the Chiefs a 33-30 lead.
Special teams captain Matthew Slater said he thinks playing with more physicality and better hand work will help turn things around.
“A lot of it comes down to us winning our matchups,” Slater said. “Just not doing a good enough job of that right now.”
Belichick said it was irrelevant how successful the kickoff coverage was last year, despite special teams coach Joe Judge and several key players — including Slater, Jonathan Jones, Patrick Chung, Brandon King, and Geneo Grissom — remaining on the unit.
“I’m not saying there isn’t some carryover, but we’re playing new teams. There’s different matchups,” Belichick said. “Look, every kick in this league is different.
“We have a basic way we do things but we’re obviously not getting it done well enough.”
One thing different is the rules governing kickoffs. Several changes were made, including that the 10 non-kicking players now line up within a yard of the 35-yard line. This eliminates the running start players used to get when they could line up as deep as the 30.
Belichick said the lack of a running start could be affecting the kickoff coverage, but he didn’t use that to excuse the poor play.
“I think it’s definitely slowed that down a little bit, maybe a step or so, 40 yards later or 30 yards later,” Belichick said. “Everybody’s playing with the same set of rules, so we just need to do a better job of whatever the situation is.”
Receiver Josh Gordon saw a significant uptick in snaps against the Chiefs, playing 63 on offense after playing just 18 apiece in the Dolphins and Colts games.
“I think each week his role has increased in practice and as far as the number of different things that he feels comfortable and we comfortable with him doing,” Belichick said. “I think it’ll continue to go that way.
“That may not necessarily correlate exactly to number of snaps. I would just say that his role is expanding weekly and we’ll just see how it all plays out.”
It’s unlikely that Gordon’s snap count will keep going up significantly — he already was on the field 80.8 percent of the time in the offense Sunday — but his productivity may increase as he continues to acclimate.
Gordon caught five passes on nine targets for 42 yards, and also drew a 37-yard pass interference penalty against the Chiefs.
Ball security will be especially important for the Patriots Sunday in Chicago, particularly because Bears pass rusher Khalil Mack has a knack for forcing fumbles. He has forced four this season and recovered one.
“He’s good at it, and the quarterbacks have to be even more aware of it than they normally are, which is a lot,” Belichick said. “Yeah, he comes around that corner kind of close to the ball and he can get his hand in there and just swat it out.”
The Bears’ 31-28 overtime loss to the Dolphins Sunday was the first game this season in which Mack, who is dealing with an ankle injury, did not record a sack. He has five this season.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at email@example.com.