How Patriots' investment in special teams is paying off


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?"


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

"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."


Reports: Patriots among NFL teams taking a look at Manziel

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Reports: Patriots among NFL teams taking a look at Manziel

Johnny Manziel said 10 days ago, "I'd go to New England in a heartbeat," when asked about the Patriots as a potential landing spot.

That seemed like wishful thinking at the time, but they're taking a look at him...along with 12 other NFL teams, according to ESPN's Eric Williams. 

Tom Brady's current backup Brian Hoyer is, like Manziel, an ex-Cleveland Browns quarterback. Manziel would again be competing with Hoyer for the Pats' No. 2 job should New England take a chance on "Johnny Football", the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M, who's been out of football the past two years because of substance abuse and emotional problems.

FOX Sports' Bruce Feldman had it at 12 teams watching Manziel work out at the University of San Diego and said the Patriots gave Manziel a weigh-in.


Patriots re-sign offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle

Patriots re-sign offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle

The Patriots have agreed to re-sign offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle, his agent Scott Casterline confirmed on Twitter.  Waddle hit unrestricted free agency when the new league year began and made a visit to the Cowboys earlier this week. In the end, though, he chose to return to the team that claimed him off of waivers at the end of the 2015 season.

Waddle, who turns 27 in July, appeared in 12 games last season for the Patriots. He was the first right tackle the Patriots turned to when Marcus Cannon suffered an ankle injury mid-season against the Chargers. He ended up playing 51 snaps against the likes of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram without allowing a sack. He then started the next three games against the Broncos, Raiders and Dolphins and held star rushers Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Cameron Wake -- all of whom rush primarily off of the offensive right -- without a sack. 

Injuries forced Waddle (380 snaps on the season) to split the right tackle position with Cameron Fleming (543 snaps), but he was the primary backup when healthy. Waddle started the Divisional Round playoff game against the Titans but suffered a knee injury and was removed for Fleming. 

Both Fleming and Waddle visited the Cowboys this week, and the fact that Waddle has re-signed with the Patriots may impact Fleming's decision moving forward. 

The Patriots went to great lengths to build tackle depth last season, and adding Waddle to the roster helps them retain some of that depth after losing their left tackle, Nate Solder, to the Giants via free agency. Waddle could be an option on the left side, but the vast majority of his work since entering the league as an undrafted rookie in 2013 has been on the right side. 

The Patriots now have Fleming, Marcus Cannon, Cole Croston, Tony Garcia and Andrew Jelks on their depth chart at tackle. Croston, Garcia and Jelks are all headed into their second years as pros. Croston remained on the 53-man roster all season -- an indication that the Patriots liked him enough not to expose him to the waiver system -- but did not see meaningful snaps. Garcia and Jelks both missed the entirety of the 2017 season on reserve lists. 

Once the Patriots lost Solder to the Giants, it seemed to be of paramount importance that the Patriots re-sign either Waddle or Fleming. Behind Cannon, there were simply too many question marks not to have one return. The Patriots could opt to draft a tackle, but this is considered an average year at that position in that there are few ready-made NFL players and several developmental types.

Before the Super Bowl last season, I asked offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia how the team was able to manage offensively with backups at right tackle for much of the season. 

"It's not like [Fleming and Waddle are] not good players," Scarnecchia said. "They are good players. Their skill set seemed to fit that position pretty well. They have the traits that we covet. And they're both really smart guys, very willing learners, and they're both driven to be good and they want to play good. And I think all those things have manifested themselves when they've been out there playing. And we've been very, very pleased with what they've done for us this year, essentially splitting that position."

Asked about the aspects of the game the Patriots worked on with both Waddle and Fleming last year, Scarnecchia said, "For us it transcends everything. Obviously run-blocking and pass-blocking. They're both good at those things. Are they great at those things? No. But they've been able to steadily improve over the last two years to the point where we put them out there and no one's worried. And it's been that way the whole season after Marcus got hurt. Yeah they've done a nice job for us."