Some of the most important, game-changing plays in the NFL and college football take place on special teams. Kick returns, punt returns, blocked kicks, the audacious fake punt return – these plays are often the difference between winning and losing.
Troy Brown’s famous scamper after a blocked kick the 2001 AFCCG helped send New England to the Super Bowl and Adam Vinatieri’s last-second kicks decided more than a few games in the Patriots’ favor. Patriots special teams should again be an area of strength in 2014, particularly in the areas of PATs, field goals and punt returning.
The units return nearly all of their starters from 2013 including second-year punter Ryan Allen, who looks to build on a solid rookie campaign. Stephen Gostkowski has become one of the elite kickers in the NFL, and appears poised for further improvement following a very strong 2013. Punt returner Julian Edelman has consistently shown the ability to make tacklers miss while gaining yardage on a regular basis. The one major question mark for the team heading into the season is in the kick return game, with uncertainty over who fills that role and how effective they will be.
Field Goal Team
The field goal/PAT unit was particularly solid for the Patriots last season. Gostkowski has been the team’s placekicker since being drafted in 2006, and 2013 might have been the finest of his career. He connected on 38 of 41 kicks for a career-high 92.7% success rate including 6 kicks of 50+ yards, also a career best. Gostkowski was also perfect on all 44 PAT attempts and has not missed an extra point since his rookie year. The one question mark prior to last season was the replacement of Zoltan Mesko as Gostkowski’s holder, but rookie punter Ryan Allen performed admirably in his place. Most teams typically employ a backup quarterback or the punter as their holder due to the repetition they get from their primary position. Unlike most NFL teams, where a backup quarterback takes on holding duties, the Patriots use of their punter for the role allows the specialists more practice time together. Bill Belichick explained his thinking in a 2013 press conference:
“[I]f your punter can hold, then the amount of snaps and time that those guys get to practice together, work together, meet together, watch film together, watch slow-motions films, concentrate on the technique as opposed to the backup quarterback or somebody like that who has a lot of other responsibilities. It’s just a time -– if your holder can be your punter, then the amount of practice time, consistency, preparation time that those guys have together just so outweighs what it would be with any other player.”
In Allen’s case, he demonstrated quick hands and the ability to place the ball consistently and at the proper angle. Long-snapper Danny Aiken was released at the end of training camp and a host of others brought in for tryouts and the practice squad. But on Sunday in Miami, Aiken was back on the active roster working with Allen and Gostkowski, handling the long snapping duties as he has for the past four seasons.
The group’s well-rounded game was on full display last year. It scored from long range while also executing consistently on shorter-distance attempts — the type of kicks viewed around the league as automatic. Gostkowski tied for 6th in the league in accuracy, while ranking at the very top in scoring with 158 points. With the unit returning intact for 2014, it projects to once again be one of the best in the NFL.
The Patriots’ punting unit saw a significant overhaul in 2013, as veteran Zoltan Mesko was let go in favor of Allen, a lower-cost rookie. After winning back-to-back Ray Guy Awards as the nation’s best college punter in 2011 and 2012, Allen’s debut season was typical of most first-year punters and lacked the consistency often seen in veterans. Overall he finished 14th in the league in average distance (45.9 yards per kick) and 16th in net distance (39.9). One major area for Allen to build on in 2014 is his short-distance directional punting, as he logged a league-high 12 touchbacks last year. Since this skill isn’t emphasized at the college level, improvement in this area should come with experience.
Allen was also near the bottom of the league in fair catch percentage at just over 17%, compared to Seattle’s Jon Ryan, who led the league at 40%. A better approach going forward might be to sacrifice distance for increased hang time. A high-end target for 2014 might be 47 yards per kick, with a net average in the 42-yard range. A more realistic expectation could be 46.5 and 40.5 respectively, since those are probably benchmarks the coaching staff envisions. Logging those latter figures in 2013 would have ranked Allen 10th in average distance, and tied him for 7th in net average. The Patriots’ punt cover team has been inconsistent in recent years, so this will be something else to watch. Coverage teams tend to see fairly significant turnover from year to year due to the nature of NFL roster construction, which accounts for much of the variance.
The kickoff unit for the Patriots was among the best in the league in 2013, with Gostkowski launching the ball 97 times and notching 65 touchbacks (second-highest in the NFL). The squad’s touchback percentage (67%) ranked third in the league. This was a significant improvement from 2011 and 2012, where New England placed 19th and 17th respectively in touchback percentage, finishing below 50% in both years. This will be something to watch over the first half of the season, as a repeat of Gostkowski’s 2013 performance would be a major boon for the Patriots. While Gostkowski does not have the strongest leg in the NFL, he adapted well when the league moved the kickoff spot from the 30-yard line to the 35. By utilizing lower-trajectory kicks, he drove the ball into or through the end zone more consistently. The downside to this approach is that it increases the possibility of a poorly-struck ball, as the kicker is attempting to make contact higher on the football which potentially leads to accidental squib kicks or a loss of directional control, usually caused by hooking the ball.
Punt Return Team
The Patriots’ punt return unit performed slightly above-average last year, with returner Julian Edelman averaging 10.7 yards over 35 returns, with fair catches on 23 punts. Although Edelman was not able to break any returns for touchdowns last year, he remains one of the most dangerous returners in the game and gives New England a major weapon from a field-position perspective. With the Patriots expected to be improved on the defensive side of the ball, Edelman may see more kicks than in previous years, which would boost his value to the team given this role.
Kickoff Return Team
Kickoff returning is an area of concern going into the season, as primary returner LeGarrette Blount departed in the offseason via free agency. Rookie Roy Finch and second-year man Josh Boyce had gotten a number of reps in the preseason, but they were both waived in final cut-downs. That leaves rookie WR Danny Amendola, RB James White, RB Shane Vereen, special teams captain Matthew Slater, safety Patrick Chung and safety Devin McCourty as options to return kickoffs. The team has placed very little emphasis on the kick return game since the kickoff line was moved, as the change has resulted in fewer returns. This will likely continue to be the case. The Patriots value ball security and getting the ball safely into the hands of Tom Brady over big play capability.
Overall, the Patriots’ special teams unit figures to be a major strength for the team in 2014, probably ranking somewhere in the top 8-10 units in the NFL. Injuries are always a factor though, as Edelman has not been consistently healthy and Gostkowski has also dealt with injury problems in the past. If Allen is able to build on his rookie season and the Patriots find a legitimate option as a kickoff returner, their unit could easily end up in the top 5, as they are already very strong on field goals and punt returns. If it goes according to plan this unit should be a plus as New England aims for another Super Bowl berth this year.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.