FOXBORO – There’s a new man coaching special teams for the Patriots this season. But it’s been the same old story of airtight kick coverage and smart return play.
Joe Judge, who succeeded the retired Scott O’Brien in the offseason, said this week the transition after spending three seasons as the assistant special teams coach has been aided by the experience of the players on his coverage units.
“My transition has been fine so far – just show up every day and keep doing your job and that takes care of a lot of things,” Judge said. “But this group’s worked hard. There’s a lot of experience. In a lot of ways early in the season, you’re still trying to find a lot of fits, a lot of gels with the guys working off of each other.”
The Patriots have always stressed the importance of special teams and don’t hesitate to use front-line starters to cover kicks. Asking Devin McCourty to chase down kickoffs, as he’s done some of this season, is no different than sending Richard Seymour or Mike Vrabel out to block on punt returns as they did.
The Pats haven’t allowed a kickoff return touchdown since 2010 and haven’t allowed a punt return touchdown since 2006. In Belichick’s tenure, he’s had a potential Hall of Fame kicker in Adam Vinatieri and a guy who’s been even more consistent than Vinatieri in Stephen Gostkowski. And Julian Edelman is currently the leader in career punt return average in NFL history.
Belichick’s background as a special teams coach is something he’s cited as being the genesis for his appreciation of how much “teams” can help or hurt a club. Judge, who spent three years coaching special teams at Alabama under Nick Saban before coming to the Patriots, says that getting everyone up to speed. Literally.
“It’s a whole lot different if I’m running next to [someone] or Matt Slater [who runs about a 4.5 40] is,” Judge pointed out. “You gotta get a feel for who that guy is next to you, how they’re playing. Just like an offense or defense, they gotta learn to work off each other.”
Even though Gostkowski has had touchbacks on 18 of his 24 kickoffs, the Patriots have allowed just 108 return yards on the ones that have been brought out. And those touchbacks aren’t wasted plays. As Belichick pointed out last Friday, Judge and the coaching staff go to school on what opponents try to set up on each return – middle return, right return, left return, etc.
In addition to Slater, the players the Patriots have come to rely on in the kicking game are guys such as Brandon Bolden, Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner.
“Having so many vets that we can work with allows the younger guys to come along faster as well,” said Judge. “While the older guys have seen a lot of it and understand exactly what you’re looking for right away, younger guys can feed off what they’re doing, see from example and then you can spend a little more time with the younger guys. Matt and Brandon and those guys, you give them the scheme and concept, they get the big picture. They’ve done it before. So their presence helps through example and through getting time with the younger guys to allow them to play a little bit faster and a little bit more aggressive.”
And keep covering without missing a beat.