Stephen Gostkowski

How Patriots' investment in special teams is paying off

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How Patriots' investment in special teams is paying off

When Marquis Flowers first arrived Gillette Stadium back in August, acquired by the Patriots via trade with the Bengals, he was in awe.

"This is like an all-star special-teams unit, man," Flowers said to himself. "Every guy in here is capable of making plays. They have made plays, and they'll continue to make plays . . . Who are teams going to block? How are they gonna go against us? How are they going to go against this?"

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Special teams may be the under-appreciated art of our country's most closely-scrutinized sport, but those who are considered kicking-game specialists follow their peers around the league almost obsessively. That's why Flowers was so struck when he joined special teams coach Joe Judge's meetings. 

He sat with players like Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden and Brandon King. He was reunited with former Bengal Rex Burkhead, one of Cincinnati's best special-teamers. Flowers would later be joined by other newcomers from around the league he'd watched before like Johnson Bademosi and Cassius Marsh. 

He'd studied these guys, he knew their reputations, and he quickly understood what they could be as a group. His prediction that they would make plays has already come to fruition many times over. 

Sitting at 7-2 through 10 weeks of the regular season, what the Patriots have done on special teams has made that phase of the game arguably their most consistent one. They are second in the league when it comes to opponent starting field position (24.82), behind only Kansas City (24.68), according to Football Outsiders. They are allowing 19.2 yards per kick return (fifth in the league), and 5.3 yards per punt return (seventh). 

Against the Broncos last weekend, Patriots special-teams units won them the game. A turnover on Denver's first punt return of the night . . . A 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Dion Lewis . . . A blocked punt . . . All momentum plays, all occurring in the first half, one shovel full of dirt after the next, burying the Broncos under the weight of their own mistakes. 

That the Patriots were able to take advantage of those missteps had Bill Belichick -- an assistant special teams coach for the Broncos in 1978 -- beaming in his weekly breakdown of big plays on Patriots.com.

"We certainly got a lot of big plays out of these units," he said. "Those guys work hard. They really deserve all the success they get."

Over the course of his nearly seven-minute breakdown of four first-half special teams plays, Belichick recognized more than dozen different players: Flowers, Burkhead, Slater, Ebner, Lewis, Bolden, King, Bademosi, Jacob Hollister, Jonathan Jones, Jordan Richards, Dwayne Allen, James Develin, Trevor Reilly and Stephen Gostkowski. 

Many of those players are seldom (if ever) used offensively or defensively, but it's long been part of Belichick's team-building philosophy to carry special-teams specialists. Even as the number of impactful kicking-game plays are being reduced -- with new rules put in place in the name of player safety -- the Patriots have seen that approach pay dividends. 

Opposing coaches have taken notice as well. 

"I think they've got excellent personnel," said Raiders coach Jack Del Rio. "They keep several spots specifically for special-teams roles, and guys like Nate Ebner, and Matt Slater, Brandon King, these are guys that show up that don't necessarily play a role defensively or offensively, but they certainly show up on special teams. 

"Both of their returners are really good as well. Their kickoff return last week against Denver . . . really was a huge momentum play in the game. To me, they obviously put a lot of emphasis in that area, and it certainly paid dividends last week when they dominated the game. A large part of that was on special teams."

Glance up and down at the list of Patriots special-teamers, a list that has often included practice-squadder Geneo Grissom in recent seasons, and a few traits stick out: Size and speed. But experience and on-the-fly intelligence have taken this assembly of athletes and turned them into a weapon. 

Even young players, like Jones (second season) and King (third) have established reputations. Teams know if they're not accounted for, they can ruin plays. But at the same time, not everyone can be doubled.

It's a problem.  

"With so many guys out on the field that are so productive, it helps," King said. "Sometimes they're running away from people to get to me to make a play. Sometimes I get double-teamed. Sometimes someone else gets double-teamed, and it singles me up. Having so many productive players on the field really helps out the whole coverage unit. There's so many things we can do to keep teams on their toes."

Despite having so many first-year Patriots playing such key roles in the kicking game, under the tutelage of Judge and his assistant Ray Ventrone, the communication on their coverage units has become relatively seamless. 

King explained that there are times when a return unit will change it's pre-kick look, and if one coverage player recognizes it before the rest, he will be able to get it communicated down the line -- even after they've all taken off in a dead sprint down the field. 

"We'll be playing one play when the ball is kicked but playing something totally different when we're 20 yards down the field," King said. "I've never been anywhere where you can actually do that."

One of the unit's best communicators, it's captain, Slater, left the Broncos game with a hamstring injury that's expected to force him to miss time. But even with Slater out, the experience level of the group is such that some of the non-verbal back-and-forth coverage players take part in shouldn't fall off. 

Bademosi, a core special-teamer for five years in Cleveland and Detroit before arriving in New England, will likely play a role in filling in for Slater when it comes to covering kicks and punts. 

"There really is a lot of communication on those plays," Belichick said. "Not a lot of it is verbal. It’s just visual recognition so that two or three of us running down the field together, we see the same thing and we know how we’re going to react to it, how I’m going to react to it, how the guy beside me is going to react to it so that you have the lanes covered and you defend the return they’re trying to set up. There’s definitely a lot of, let’s call it visual communication on those plays . . . 

"The players that are on that team -- [Judge] and [Ventrone] have done a great job with them and given them the awareness of the blocking schemes and the types of returns we’re going to face and given them opportunities to work off of each other to try to create space in the coverage so that we can get down there and try to penetrate. Those guys have worked hard at that. They do a lot of extra things on their own . . . They’ve played well for us all year. Our field position on those plays has been outstanding."

The Patriots have made an investment. Gostkowski is one of the highest-paid kickers in the league due in part to the fact that he's able to drill well-placed kicks that encourage returns. The number of roster spots committed to "teams" is rare. And when it comes to practice time, the kicking game doesn't get squeezed. 

That's evident at training camp when large portions of practice are devoted to kickoffs, punts and returns, and Judge can be heard from across the field coaching things the way he learned them from Belichick and former Patriots special teams czar Scott O'Brien.

"People like to forget about special teams," Flowers said. "We don't. Special teams is huge, man. It's a game-changing and momentum-changing play. You only get one shot at it. It's a huge. It's part of the game. That's why when you win in all three phases, you win big."

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Patriots midseason awards: Part Three

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Patriots midseason awards: Part Three

The season is halfway over and the Patriots are on their bye week, so what better time for midseason superlatives? In the third of a three-part series, Phil Perry and Tom E. Curran and Mike Giardi tell you what's worked so far . . . and what hasn't.

PART ONE Best and worst on-field happenings | PART TWO: Midseason awards

REASON TO BELIEVE

PHIL PERRY: Rob Gronkowski's health. Yes, the workload has been hefty. But Gronkowski looks explosive, and he's made it through a half-season as Brady's best weapon in the passing game and one of the team's most impactful blockers. If he and Brady are healthy, they still have the ability to keep pace with most NFL offenses. 

 

TOM E. CURRAN: An effective running game. Four backs of varying skills who can keep the heat off Brady’s arm, make play-action useful and pick up the hard yards? If they keep improving, they’ll be the key to this offense.

 

MIKE GIARDI: There’s a bunch, but I’ll just drop these two names: Brady and Belichick. As long as Brady is operating at this level, the Pats have a chance (boy, I bet you’ve never heard that before). I still think, even with a somewhat uneven performance in the first half, that the offense will score every time it has the ball. That’s all about Brady. I’ve seen it too often not to believe. As for Belichick, he routinely coaches circles around the rest of these clowns in the NFL. His teams are generally smarter and almost always better prepared. This run of success in the salary cap league is unprecedented. It starts with the coach and he’s closely followed by the quarterback.


REASON TO DESPAIR

PHIL PERRY:  Lack of pass-rush options. It won't matter all that much who is in the secondary or how well they're playing if the Patriots pass rush isn't a threat to speed up opposing passers. They're thin on the edge, and they'll need the likes of Deatrich Wise, Cassius Marsh, Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy to provide them something in the way of disruption. 

 

TOM E. CURRAN: Scattershot Steve. My confidence in Stephen Gostkowski is diminishing and this Patriots team won’t be blowing people out. He needs to be a consistent asset rather than a dice roll.

 

MIKE GIARDI: The Pats have lost two of the most irreplaceable players on their roster, Dont’a Hightower and Julian Edelman. They are dangerously thin on the defensive line, at wide receiver, at tight end, at linebacker and now at quarterback. I realize that every team can’t have backups who are NFL-caliber starters at every position. That’s not how the league works. But it’s been a long time since you can run down a list of depth issues at so many spots. I don’t care how good the coaching is, if a Rob Gronkowski goes down, this team is in deep doodoo. Ditto for Trey Flowers. Did you ever think an injury to Kyle Van Noy could derail the season? Yeah, me neither. Wait, actually I still don’t, but you get the point. Health is critical down the stretch.


BEST PERSONNEL HIT

PHIL PERRY: Brandin Cooks The Patriots had to hit if they were willing to give up a first-rounder, and they have. He isn't a middle-of-the-field dynamo, but on the outside Cooks is electric. He's averaging 17.1 yards per catch, and he's on pace for over 1,200 yards receiving and six touchdowns. 

 

TOM E. CURRAN: Johnson Bademosi. The Patriots tracked the former Stanford corner since 2012 and spent a sixth-round pick in the offseason to get him away from the Lions. He’s filled in stunningly well for the injured Stephon Gilmore.

 

MIKE GIARDI: Johnson Bademosi. He’s been a saving grace for a secondary and a defense that had been struggling mightily during the first month or so . Normally a special-teams player and special-teamer alone, Bademosi has expanded his role to become the starting corner opposite Malcolm Butler, filling in ably for Stephon Gilmore. Okay, he’s actually been far more consistent than Gilmore was before his injury. No, Bademosi isn’t better than Gilmore but he’s performed better in this short sample and at the very least has given Matt Patricia another viable option at corner. All for a 2018 sixth-round draft pick. I’d say it’s already been worth it.


BIGGEST PERSONNEL BLUNDER

PHIL PERRY: Dwayne Allen. The Patriots swapped a fourth-round pick for a sixth-rounder in order to acquire Allen, so it's not as though they sold the farm to snag him from the Colts. But his role could have been a crucial one in the Patriots offense, and now it's the opposite. Allen hasn't seen a target since Week 4 and he doesn't have a catch on the season. Undrafted rookie Jacob Hollister was playing over Allen in the two-minute drill in the first half last Sunday. 

TOM E. CURRAN: Lack of left-tackle attention. The Patriots are foot-dragging on finding Nate Solder’s understudy in a way they didn’t with Matt Light. And they are nickel-and-diming the search in a way they didn’t with Light. Solder’s not playing great and the Patriots have poor tackle depth. It concerns.

 

MIKE GIARDI: The list is a hell of a lot longer than normal in the Belichick-era. Stephen Gilmore is an easy target. I’m not going there. The last game he played was a good one. Dwayne Allen? Yeah, he’s been average at best. But I wasn’t expecting him to be an impact player so I rule him out. Trading Jimmy Garoppolo? That wasn’t my favorite but with Brady playing the way he’s playing, fine. That takes me all the back to the trade for Kony Ealy. I hear all this talk about just moving down eight spots in the draft and it was a low-risk, high-reward move. Really? They made the trade expecting Ealy to play an important role along the defensive line. Their failure to see it wasn’t a good fit, or to motivate the player, led to Ealy getting chopped before cutdown day. That’s how bad it was. Do you think they could use a player of his talent level right now? That was a rhetorical question. The answer is yes. And as the Pats struggle to get to the QB, and have to play Cassius Marsh or use Kyle Van Noy on the edge or even turn to the Flowers not named Trey, you can’t help but think “man, it sure would be nice to have Kony Ealy on the field right about now" . . . 


ASSISTANT OF THE HALF-YEAR

PHIL PERRY: Joe Judge. The Patriots' kick-coverage units have been perhaps the most consistent of any unit on the team through eight weeks. And that's with Matthew Slater missing the first quarter of the year. Credit goes to Judge and his assistant Bubba Ventrone for getting these groups, comprised of many first-year Patriots, on the same page so quickly. 

 

TOM E. CURRAN: Ivan Fears. The Patriots’ running back coach has James White, Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead under his supervision and the way those players have improved over time is due notice.

 

MIKE GIARDI: Ivan Fears. Aside from quarterback, what position on the team has performed to or above expected levels? To me, it’s one spot and one spot alone: running back. Of the quartet of Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, only the latter hasn’t quite taken off but it’s not like Gillislee has sucked. Fears has managed to -- generally -- keep everyone happy in that group. He wins the award and I’m sure he’s already carving out space on his mantel. 

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