Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick didn't seem all that interested in last week's Hall of Fame game, even the morning after its completion. 

It was the first glimpse of televised football in six months. Did he have a chance to watch? 

"I didn't," Belichick said flatly. "I missed it...17-16. Must have been pretty exciting."

But Belichick and his staff will go back and take a look at what transpired between the Bears and Ravens, if only to see what other teams have planned for the new kickoff rules. 

MORE FROM PHIL PERRY


We went over those rules changes in detail this spring after watching the Patriots spend significant amounts of practice time on their execution in those situations. Because of the rule limiting running starts by the kicking team, and because only three players are allowed to align beyond the 15-yard "setup zone," it looks like there will be more space than ever for returners to go to work.

"The spacing is going to be the biggest issue," Matthew Slater told NBC Sports Boston. "Spacing and timing, ball-handling because of that space."

Even with a handful of rules encouraging more space for receiving teams, it wasn't as though the Hall of Fame game saw a huge uptick in explosive returns. The Bears returned two kicks for 40 total yards. The Ravens returned three for 64 yards. Both teams had a long return of 24 yards. 

 

That space may actually benefit kicking teams in some ways. With only three players allowed to be deep for return teams, if an accurate kicker can place the ball on an an unoccupied slice of turf, it could cause ball-handling issues. 

The Patriots, for instance, have used running backs and others accustomed to carrying the football as their two deep players with a deep returner. In so doing, what they may sacrifice blocking ability, they'll make up for with better speed or better ball-security than if they were to use a lineman, fullback or tight end.

On one kickoff in the Hall of Fame game, the Bears made life difficult for Ravens return man Janarion Grant by forcing him to cover half the width of the field just to cleanly catch the kick at the six-yard line. 

As you can see in the image above, the Ravens worked to get a wall of blockers in front of their returner before the kicking team made its way down the field. The Bears did the same when they were on the receiving end.

But the way in which the two teams went about their returns were different. The Bears used six men at midfield with two ends offset closer the edge of the setup zone, about 10 yards back from the first wave of blockers. 

The Ravens, meanwhile, opted to fan out their personnel a bit more. They had four players at midfield, two at the 45-yard line, and two at the 40. Then, like the Bears, they had two players in front of one primary returner.


Belichick said the strategies used in Canton that night are worth watching because of the coaching staffs involved. 

The Bears are led by first-year head coach Matt Nagy and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, who spent the last seven seasons as Browns special teams coordinator. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh's background is in special teams, and Baltimore's special teams coordinator/associate head coach Jerry Rosburg has spent a decade overseeing what is annually one of the most widely-respected kicking-game teams units in the league. 

"We'll definitely watch that game relative to the officiating, the kickoffs, just some strategy on the kickoffs," Belichick said. "I did see a couple of plays on that. But what those two teams are doing, that doesn’t mean the other 29 – minus us – [will do] but, you know, those are two good coaching staffs. We'll see what they did strategically on the kickoff and kickoff return in that phase of the game."

The Patriots have continued to practice their kick and kick-return strategies in great detail during training camp, but they probably won't practice any live kickoffs or kick returns until they take on the Redskins in their first preseason game Thursday. 

 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE