The New England Patriots have shredded two of the best punt coverage units in the NFL in back-to-back weeks, making the Baltimore Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts look pedestrian. Now, as they take on the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, an array of dazzling returns and special teams superstars could be poised to make a difference.
The New England Patriots ranked as one of the top punt return teams in the league during the 2014 season. However, against the Ravens and Colts, the Patriots stepped up their game, unleashing a variety of returns to counter the directional prowess of Sam Koch and Pat McAfee. While New England has employed many different looks this season, their recent performance has made strong punt units look second-rate on a regular basis. Facing a disciplined Seahawks unit that is remarkably consistent in their approach, the Patriots will turn to their varied scheme as a way to attack the weaknesses exploited by the Oakland Raiders in our Part I preview.
The Patriots are notorious for wall returns, employing them all year. Wall returns will absolutely be part of their Super Bowl game plan. However, in recent games New England has shown they can also run simple directional returns that could also prove effective against the Seattle punt unit.
In the AFC Championship Game against Indianapolis, the Patriots forced a punt on the first possession of the game. McAfee jogged out and launched a pedestrian kick down the right hash:
Circled in red is Chris White (#59), a core special-teamer for the Patriots. His actions on this play clearly indicate New England’s intentions. After using hold-up technique to keep his man in place, he tracks back towards the returner, Julian Edelman (#11). He is looking to his right, attempting to locate his man:
White finally spots his block, Dwayne Allen (#83, circled in yellow), who is several yards to the right as they start to head downfield:
Allen notices White trailing his left flank, and does exactly what he is taught – he goes butt-side of the defender to avoid the block, trying to get into the lane White is attempting to steer him away from. This is perfect technique by Allen to this point. However, the play is far from over:
White works to get outside leverage on Allen once again and, after sliding to his left, engages his block (red target). Allen gets forced off the left hash, opening up a lane for Edelman. At the same time, two other Patriots employ similar blocks (yellow targets) using a directional return technique to free up this side of the field. Edelman picks up 20 yards against a Colts squad that had only surrendered a 20+ yard return one other time this season.
The Bold and the De-Cleated
Not content to simply use this return once, New England decided to roll it out until the Colts proved they could stop it. With Indianapolis trailing 38-7 in the third quarter, the Colts punted again:
Edelman (circled in red) receives the ball at his 10-yard line. Ahead of him, several Patriots engage their blocks, forcing the Colt defenders to the left. This is the exact same return New England ran in the first half. As Edelman breaks for the right, nearly the entire Indianapolis squad gets left behind:
There is only one man in a position to stop Edelman before a big gain. That man is linebacker Andy Studebaker (#58, yellow arrow) and he is about to feel what happens when you stand on the tracks and the train comes through. Brandon Bolden (#38, blue target) is coming from the weak side of the play at full speed. The resulting hit is one of the biggest blocks on special teams all year:
Bolden launches Studebaker with a perfectly timed block, knocking him out of Edelman’s path and allowing the returner to reach the edge. Here’s a closer look at the collision:
After a sprint up the sidelines, Edelman is finally stopped after a 45-yard gain, with five yards being tacked on for ineligible Colt downfield. That makes two runbacks of greater than 20 yards after Indianapolis gave up one the entire season, for those keeping score at home.
What To Expect When You’re Returning
Jon Ryan is a very good punter. I hesitate to call him elite, since he does not demonstrate the directional abilities or the raw leg strength requisite for that category, but he absolutely slots into the next tier. However, his punting style is one that a strong return team can scheme against, and this presents problems for Seattle. While their defense is undoubtedly outstanding, the easiest way to make a good defense look bad is to give opposing quarterbacks a short field to work with. Edelman and the New England return team have the potential to be a major thorn in the side of the Seahawks, and there is no doubt this is an area Pete Carroll will have to focus on during the final week of preparations if he wants to mitigate the Patriots return game.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.
Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.