2015 NFL Playoffs: Ravens at Patriots Special Teams Preview

The Ravens at Patriots special teams preview looks at the kickoff and punt coverage units, the return teams, plus the kickers and the punters for both teams.

The Baltimore Ravens face the New England Patriots for the fourth time in the postseason. Special teams proved decisive in their 2012 battle, as Billy Cundiff’s missed field goal sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl.

In 2014, these two units feature elite players, with both squads above average overall. An intensely physical confrontation should provide a treat for fans, adding another great chapter to the rivalry between these two teams.

When Baltimore Punts

The Ravens have one of the best punt units in the league, with Sam Koch an upper-echelon punter, in both gross average and peripheral stats. Averaging 47.4 yards per kick, two yards above the NFL mean, his ball control is outstanding, with 43.3% of his kicks landing inside the 20-yard line and a mere 6.7% spilling into the end zone for touchbacks.

Koch also had a phenomenal regular season as a directional punter, largely working down the left side of the field:

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In the above still, he pins Steelers returner Antonio Brown within five yards of the sideline. Later that same game, he again becomes the object of Brown’s nightmares later:

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If it looks like the same kick, it isn’t. Koch is that good.

And to ensure Brown has visions of Koch all offseason, he unleashed this ridiculous 49-yard punt from his own 11-yard line in the first quarter of their Wild Card tilt:

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The ball ends up in the hands of fellow big-leg specialist Justin Tucker (#9) on the sidelines after bouncing out of bounds at the Steelers 40-yard line. This rates as one of the best punts in the NFL this season, rivaled only by Sam Martin’s 55-yard bomb that pinned Patriots returner Julian Edelman to the sideline in Week 12.

Baltimore had a punt blocked by the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs, largely due to a high snap that slowed the snap-to-kick time to nearly 2.3 seconds. NFL teams aim for 2.0 seconds, so assuming their battery issues get addressed before the this weekend, this should not be a factor against New England. However, the Ravens are on their third long-snapper of the year after Morgan Cox tore his ACL in mid-October and Kevin McDermott headed to the IR in December with an elbow injury. Current snapper Patrick Scales will have all eyes on him this week in Foxboro.

Koch will have to be on his game again this week when he kicks to Edelman, one of the NFL’s top returners. The Patriot averages 12 yards per runback, ranking second in the league, and poses a threat to change field position any time he touches the ball. A phenomenal return unit led by gunner Matthew Slater, bolsters Edelman, along with a strong game plan that adapts from week to week. One of Edelman’s best returns came during the Patriots’ battle with the Chicago Bears earlier this season:

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Shortly after the Bears punt, Slater and Jonas Gray begin looping to the left of the frame (red arrows). After attempting to block the kick, they now face the task of setting up blocks for Edelman. As the play develops, they work downfield:

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Edelman receives the kick at his 39-yard line with a number of Bears closing in from the right side (yellow arrows) ‒ but that is not where the return is set up. Edelman takes off up the left side of the field where Slater and Gray are working back towards him (red arrows). Shortly after, it becomes clear the Bears are about to get torched:

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Edelman has a convoy of blockers in this “left wall’ runback, engineered by the Patriots’ return unit. Edelman winds up with a 42-yard gain on the play, setting up a New England score just before halftime. A more expansive breakdown of this play and the Patriots’ unique execution can be found here.

This projects as the premium matchup of this game. Look for Koch to attempt to keep the ball away from Edelman, as any ball in the middle of the field could become a game-changer for the Patriots. These are two players at the top of their game, so grab some popcorn.

When New England Punts

The Patriots performed in uncharacteristically sloppy fashion when punting this season. After inconsistent play over the first half of the year, including a massive protection breakdown in Week 1 that led to a blocked kick, the punt unit showed improvement towards the end of the schedule.

Second-year player Ryan Allen, a middle-of-the-pack punter at this point in his career, handles launching duties for the Patriots. Punters often have a long development cycle, taking three to five years to become comfortable with the NFL ball and the demands of the position. Allen has the tools to be a top punter in the league, but has not yet shown the consistency to merit such consideration.

Allen averaged 46.4 yards per kick, a yard above the league average, but this number is deceptive. Early in the season, Allen had a number of shanked punts, striking the ball too far off the side of his foot instead of slightly off-center from the top to generate a proper spiral. He benefited from several rolls for good distance on these short and unpredictable kicks. However, later in the season Allen began to show the underlying skill he possesses:

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Punting from his 40-yard line, Allen booms a 49-yard boot to the San Diego 11-yard line. While the kick travels toward the middle of the field rather than the sides, the 4.4-second hang time is enough to allow Tavon Wilson to stop Keenan Allen after only a 6-yard gain.

Later in the game, Allen launched an even better punt:

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From the New England 34-yard line, Allen blasts a kick just outside the left numbers on the San Diego 10-yard line where Brian Tyms promptly tackles Keenan Allen. Do the math – 56 yards with precise placement. Allen has all the natural talent to be a great punter. He just needs to put it together on a weekly basis, and his improvement in the second half of the season provide encouraging signs for Patriots fans.

No discussion of the New England punt coverage would be complete without elaborating on Slater. Working exclusively on special teams, the four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro is devastating in pursuing and tackling ball carriers while evading attempts to block him. Slater, one of a handful of NFL players noteworthy for their coverage abilities alone, consistently turns in tremendous efforts as a punt gunner.

The Ravens counter with returner Jacoby Jones, who sported a 9.2-yard average for the regular season but was unable to return any of Brad Wing’s three punts during the Wild Card round. Jones no longer has the extra gear he displayed during his early years in the NFL, but he remains an instinctive player who can make strong returns the coverage gives him a crease to exploit.

When Baltimore Kicks Off

The Ravens’ Justin Tucker launched 69.8% of his kickoffs for touchbacks, the fifth-best mark in the NFL this year. Six of his seven launches on Wild Card Weekend found the end zone, with four touchbacks and two others going five yards deep but taken out on runbacks. Even in the frigid air of Foxboro, Tucker’s outstanding leg should offer New England little to work with on kickoff returns.

The Patriots’ middling kickoff return squad averaged 22.4 yards per runback, 10th worst in the league. Danny Amendola, their primary returner, slightly bettered that mark (24.1 YPR). The mantra for this unit: Avoid fumbles and get the ball in the hands of Tom Brady.

When New England Kicks Off

Stephen Gostkowski handles kickoffs for the Patriots, booting 54.1% of his kicks for touchbacks, just above the league average of 52.3%. Fortunately, the New England coverage unit is outstanding, giving up just 21.2 YPR (fourth-best in the NFL). New England employs a number of positional starters on special teams, and this approach pays dividends in consistently pinning opponents near their 20-yard line.

Jones also serves as the primary kickoff returner for the Ravens, recording a 108-yard touchdown against the Steelers this season. This helped boost Baltimore to the top of the league in return average as they racked up 28.3 YPR. Gostkowski and the New England coverage team need to be on their game in what should be a great matchup.

Placekicking

Tucker went 25-for-25 from under 50 yards for the Ravens in the regular season and 2-for-2 from this distance in their Wild Card game. More importantly, Tucker connected from 52 yards last week after making just 4 of 9 in-season from over 50 yards. This bodes well for the Ravens, as accuracy from distance is the only major question mark surrounding Tucker.

Stephen Gostkowski, one of the top two kickers in the league alongside the Colts’ Adam Vinatieri, made 35 of 37 kicks this season. Always a threat from long-distance, Gostkowski has split the uprights 9 times in 11 tries from beyond 50 yards over the past four seasons. With a 90% accuracy mark in each of the last two seasons, he stands as one of the few in the league who provide an edge over Tucker.

Summary

As seen in the Ravens-Steelers matchup last week, the main battle to watch here is the Baltimore punt unit versus the New England return squad as Koch and his leg attempt to shut down down the dangerous Edelman. With a pair of well-coached, talented, and evenly matched squads overall, the winner this weekend will come down to who executes best.

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.

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