Patriots

How Patriots' investment in special teams is paying off

judge-belichick.jpg

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?"

MORE PATRIOTS

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."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Curran: Pats and Steelers a study in contrasts . . . and we should be grateful

Curran: Pats and Steelers a study in contrasts . . . and we should be grateful

PITTSBURGH --- Mike Tomlin started embracing the "elephant" s on November 27.

Foreplay with the pachyderm can finally cease. The Patriots and Steelers get after it this afternoon. This is the Game of the Year in the AFC. Maybe the NFL.

While Tomlin started hyping the Patriots game 21 days ago, the Patriots didn’t breathe a word about it until this week. And that only came after a Monday night loss in Miami that raised the stakes for this game into a do-or-die for the Patriots in terms of getting the No. 1 seed.

PATRIOTS VS. STEELERS

That whiff of vulnerability that descends after every Patriots loss was in the air this week. Segments of the fanbase react like the worst kinds of hypochondriacs -- perfectly fit but thinking every day that every twinge means an aneurysm is near.

But on Saturday, the 40-year-old quarterback did for New England what he’s been doing since 2001. Put his hand on its shoulder and said, “LFG.” 

Thank God for Tomlin. As much as we lampooned his giddy embrace of this matchup, he got the hype train out of the station and the tub-thumping since has made this the most anticipated Patriots game since February.

While we’re at it, thank God for the Steelers. For Big Sloppy Ben, for Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and the detestable James Harrison. Without them, the Patriots would be completely without a foil in this league.

Think about it. The NFL is Rex-less. Peyton’s long gone, the Colts are dead, the Broncos are also dead, the Ravens are washed, Eli’s on his last legs for a two-win team.

The Steelers are the only ones out there, picking up a rock and fitting it in a slingshot for the rest of the conference, the rest of the league.

Take it a little further: Thank God for the Steelers as an organization. They serve as an AFC measuring stick for the Patriots. They won back-to-back Super Bowls twice in the 1970s and have won six Lombardis overall. While there’s no arguing which franchise has been better since the 1990s, you can have a spirited talk about whether the Patriots have yet supplanted the Steelers in overall historical resume. You want 45 years of really good with spikes of being the best, as Pittsburgh’s had? Or 40 years of not-so-good with spikes of real good and then a 17-year stretch like no team’s ever had?

These Steelers and Patriots have nothing in common when it comes to the way they do things. The coaches are polar opposites. The quarterbacks are nothing alike. The Steelers defense flies around with the same danger and disorganization of a wasp attack. Playing the Patriots defense is like punching a snowbank for three hours. Everything about the Patriots offense is based on timing and precision. The Steelers have an air of winging it when they have the ball, whether it’s Bell hanging out in the backfield after the snap until a crease opens or Roethlisberger waiting to restart a play while Brown skips through the opposing secondary.

The Steelers always talk a big game. The Patriots say next to nothing.

As consumers, we all love the talking and the hype because it ratchets up the drama. But as football observers based in New England, we’ve come to believe that talking beforehand is like giving your own eulogy.

But a lot of what Mike Tomlin said you can agree with even if you’re only on your couch today. You will remember this game, as opposed to the succession of beatdowns over the procession of also-rans the Patriots seasons sometimes become.

"It's good to be in the kitchen,” said Tomlin this week. “The kitchen's in Pittsburgh, PA, this week in the National Football League, and at Heinz Field. That's where you want to be in the middle of December. We don't take it for granted."

And neither should we.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Patriots will be without Kyle Van Noy for showdown against Steelers

patriots_kyle_van_noy_111917.jpg

Patriots will be without Kyle Van Noy for showdown against Steelers

The Patriots' defense won't be at full strength Sunday as linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who's been battling a calf injury for weeks, is ruled out against the Steelers:

And NBC Sports Boston's Mike Giardi wonders if it could have been avoided:

And what will it mean this afternoon? Giardi has an idea:

There is some good injury news for the Patriots, however:

As for the Steelers, they're getting nothing but good news: