Patriots

Can the Patriots use the new kickoff rules to their advantage?

Can the Patriots use the new kickoff rules to their advantage?

UPDATE: Changes to the kickoff were approved at the NFL Spring Meeting in Atlanta.

Change is coming for the kickoff. It's just a matter of time now.

In the name of player safety, several proposed rule changes for the kickoff will be presented to NFL owners at next week's Spring League Meeting in Atlanta. In order for the rules changes to take hold, 24 of the 32 owners will have to approve.

The proposals have been met with plenty of public support. Special teams coaches are intrigued by the new rules. Media invested in the play, in particular, 14-year NFL veteran Jay Feely, are on board. Even though the changes could drastically change the look of the kickoff, they may save the play by making it safer. The alternative might've been eliminating it altogether.

Patriots special teams ace and captain Matthew Slater was asked about the potential for the play's elimination earlier this offseason, back in April.

"I think you take away this play from football [and] you’re changing the fabric of the game," he said. "I think this play is part of the fabric of the game. It really makes me ask the question ‘Where do you go from here? What will happen next?’, and I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know. But I look at a number of plays. I look at a goal-line stand. I look at a third-and-1; think about the collisions that are happening there. Those may be deemed unsafe by some people. 

"If you [eliminate kickoffs], what’s next? What happens? The reality is this is football. This is a contact sport. This is a violent sport, and all of us that are playing the game understand that. There are inherent risks that come along with playing the game. If you’re not OK with those risks, I respect that, and maybe you should think about doing something else. But if we feel like we need to take away this play from the game to make the game safer, well then what does that stop?"

With next week's proposals, the Competition Committee in conjunction with special teams coaches may have found a happy medium. Slater and others don't have to be worried about the play being erased just yet. 

But the kickoff will be different. Here's a tweet from NFL Vice President of Football Communications explaining the proposed changes. 

Let's take a quick look at not only how the proposed changes will change the play, but how it will change the play for the Patriots... 

DONE WITH POP-UP KICKS?


The Patriots have benefitted from having a kicker in Stephen Gostkowski who's adept at kicking the ball high and placing it near an opponent's goal line to force a return. Combined with great speed on New England's coverage unit, the Patriots have been one of the best in football in terms of pinning opponents inside their own 25-yard line. Last year, the Patriots were tops in the league in terms of average opponent starting field position. But if the proposal to have kickoff coverage players line up just one yard behind the ball prior to the kick passes...that would eliminate the running start for the coverage team, which would make it harder for players to get down the field and pin return men deep in their own territory on those high kicks. As a result, the Patriots may move away from using those pop-up kicks as frequently as they do. 

But on the flip side, when returning, the Patriots could benefit in a big way. With teams unable to get a running start when they kick off, that'll make kickoff returns more wide open. That might mean more space for one of the league's top return men, Cordarrelle Patterson, when he has an opportunity for a return. Patterson has 153 career kick returns and has averaged 30.2 yards per return. He's taken five back for touchdowns. 

WEDGE PROPOSAL COULD ALTER ROSTERS


Wedge blocks are relatively violent. Not only because they entail a two-on-one matchup, but because kick coverage units could employ wedge-busters to break up the two-man wall. That led to big collisions and injuries. Under the proposed rule changes, those wedge blocks deep down the field would be illegal. With only three players allowed to align deep on the kick-return unit, with the elimination of the running start from coverage units, and with a ban on blocks in the restricted area prior to the ball hitting the ground or being touched, the kickoff is going to look a little more like a punt. More one-on-one blocks, fewer double-teams and trap-blocks, leading to fewer high-impact collisions. 

For teams looking to take advantage of the more wide-open nature of the play, including the Patriots, this could have a very real impact on how rosters are built. Faster players vying for a back-end-of-the-roster spot could have an advantage over bigger ones. On the back end of return units, teams will need players who can cover a great deal of ground. And if wedge blocks are gone, the importance of having more imposing, but less mobile, blockers will be mitigated. Teams could lean toward the use of more linebackers and corners in the return game rather than some of the bigger offensive and defensive linemen who sometimes line up to clear space returners. 

ALIGNMENT PROPOSAL LIMITS SOME CREATIVITY


Because one proposal would require teams to have five players on either side of the kicker, that would limit some onside kick formations that call for one side with six players. Pre-kick motions are also illegal. This is something the Patriots have used in a variety of ways under Bill Belichick. They've sent some of their faster players -- whether it's Slater or Jonathan Jones or someone else -- in motion pre-kick to complicate opposing blocking assignments. Another portion of the rules change proposal requires at least two players outside the numbers and at least two players between the numbers and the hash marks. Again, this limits some pre-kick creativity for teams looking to manipulate the spacing between coverage players before the snap. 

MORE ACTION FOR EBNER...?


Patriots fans probably don't have the fondest memories of Nate Ebner's rugby-style mortar kick against the Eagles in 2015, but the proposal requiring eight return-team players to align in a 15-yard "set-up zone" closer to midfield might open up some space for kicking teams to get creative. A well-placed short kick - or a rugby boot - could find the soft spot in the return unit. This is why having fast players on the back end matters. A kick over the heads of the eight players in the "set-up zone" and in front of the three-man return group could cause ball-handling issues. In Super Bowl LII, the Patriots employed tight end Dwayne Allen and fullback James Develin as the wedge players in front of return man Dion Lewis. There may be some thought from special teams coordinators around the league to sub out bigger blockers with athletes who have more return experience.

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Do Patriots lack leadership? Rob Ninkovich issues challenge to ex-team

Do Patriots lack leadership? Rob Ninkovich issues challenge to ex-team

It's no surprise that critics are writing the New England Patriots' eulogy after back-to-back December losses.

But what do former Patriots think of the team's surprising struggles?

Rob Ninkovich was in New England's locker room during its rocky 2009 season, in which head coach Bill Belichick famously complained his team lacked mental toughness. So, does Ninkovich believe this 2018 Patriots squad has similar shortcomings -- and if so, can they fix those issues?

The former Pats linebacker gave a fiery answer to NBC Sports Boston's Phil Perry on the latest edition of "The Ex-Pats Podcast."

 

"You can't just get it in a week. It's an attitude. It's a demeanor," Ninkovich said. "When you are kind of backed up into that corner, are you just going to kind of accept the fact that you're there or are you going to jump out and try to claw someone's face?"

Ninkovich then wondered aloud if anyone in the Patriots' locker room was holding their teammates accountable after Sunday's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, which dropped the team to 9-5.

"Are you going to just sit there and let it happen to you or are you going to do something about it? I don't know," Ninkovich said. "There might need to be somebody in that locker room on that team that gets in people's faces. I don't know. Is there somebody in there that's saying, like, 'What are we doing?' "

Quarterback Tom Brady obviously serves in a leadership role, but Ninkovich was most concerned about New England's defense, which allowed 142 rushing yards to backup Jaylen Samuels on Sunday after surrendering 34 points to the Miami Dolphins in Week 14.

On that front, Ninkovich noted actions sometimes speak louder than words.

"Talk is cheap. Prove it to me. Show me," he said. "Nothing got me more aggravated when I would tell somebody, 'Hey, do this.' Or, 'Be here. Run this stunt. Run it this way.' and they didn't do it.

" ... And then you're just like, 'Man, get the hell off the field. Don't even be next to me if I can't trust you, if I can't rely on you to stay in your gap or to be there when we're going to run a stunt, give me the next guy. Give me another guy that's hungry and just does the right thing."

The Patriots have home games against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets to right the ship before the playoffs. Perhaps they'll bring Ninkovich in for a guest pep talk to rally the troops.

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Phil Perry's Report Card: Patriots fail to solve Steelers combination of pressure, changing coverages

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AP photo

Phil Perry's Report Card: Patriots fail to solve Steelers combination of pressure, changing coverages

The Patriots are confident they'll be able to fix what ails them. Even though it's Week 15. Even though they won't have another chance to prove themselves on the road unless it's in the postseason. 

"I know the type of group that we have," Duron Harmon said Sunday. "We all come ready to work. We are going to fix it. We are going to fix it for sure. We are going to be better next week and when we get another opportunity to play on the road, we will be better and do everything we can to get a win."

Part of the process of fixing it started Monday when the Patriots watched the film at Gillette Stadium. They identified their screw-ups, and they'll go back to basics this week in practice in order to potentially help them solve fundamental problems that were addressed in some way shape or form back in training camp. 

We'll identify Sunday's issues ourselves here with the grades. Let's get to them...

QUARTERBACK: C

Tom Brady's fourth-quarter interception was a back-breaker and more than just a throwaway gone wrong. It looked as though he thought he'd have Rob Gronkowski open when the tight end spun away from double-coverage in the middle of the field. If that was the case, he didn't account for Joe Haden's ability to find the football and make a play. It also seemed like Brady could have stood taller in the pocket to make that throw -- throwaway or not -- and put a little more juice on it. Brady made a fall-away throw on the final play of the game as well, but it was the two throws previous to that one that were head-scratchers. He had Gronkowski on a much shorter Haden in quarters coverage on second down and threw the ball out of bounds. On the next snap, Gronkowski was matched up with 6-foot-1 Terrell Edmunds and but again Brady's throw sailed too high. The Steelers did well to take away Gronkowski, Edelman and Gordon in critical situations as they cycled between man and zone, two-high safeties and one. And Brady wasn't helped by his team's penalties and drops. But he had plenty of issues of his own.

RUNNING BACK: C+

Sony Michel ran for 59 yards on 13 carries (4.5 per carry) and he picked up more than half his yards after contact (38). Unfortunately for him, he had more yardage wiped off the board due to penalties. Rex Burkhead, meanwhile, picked up 25 yards on four carries, mostly behind New England's road-grating right side of the offensive line. James White caught five passes on seven targets, while many wonder if he could've had at least one more. He was open in the flat on his team's final second and third downs of the game, but Brady opted to look elsewhere. White had an uncharacteristic drop on third down in the first quarter that helped contribute to a 3-for-10 day on third down. 

RECEIVER: C-

Julian Edelman hit 90 yards on seven catches, Chris Hogan snagged a 63-yard touchdown on a broken coverage when Josh Gordon drew extra coverage, and Cordarrelle Patterson provided some production in the passing game (three catches for 20 yards). But this was a rough day for Chad O'Shea's group. Edelman had two penalties, and both he and Gordon had costly drops. Hogan missed a critical block on a screen pass in the third quarter. Gordon was occasionally doubled as Pittsburgh "spun the dial," but he was singled late on the outside on several occasions and he didn't get an opportunity to make a play (two targets on the night). That he was off the field for the final play of the game, Patterson came on in his place, was curious. He wasn't available to members of the media after the game. 

TIGHT END: C

It's been fascinating to watch how different teams have treated Gronkowski of late. The Jets doubled him and sent their best player at him one-on-one. The Vikings covered him with linebackers, treated him like any other tight end and held him down. The Dolphins zoned him up and got burned for Gronkowski's first 100-yard game since Week 1. The Steelers? They were hell-bent on not allowing Gronkowski to repeat his performance in Pittsburgh from last season (a career-high 168 yards receiving). They doubled him consistently, especially on third down and in the red zone. They used linebackers and safeties. Corners had their shot at him as well. Few took him on without help over the top. They forced Brady to go elsewhere, and Gronkowski finished with just two catches on four targets for 21 yards. James Develin also caught two passes for 19 yards. When Gronkowski did stay in to block -- as he did on Hogan's touchdown -- he was effective. But the Patriots need more from him as a receiver. Whether or not they get it will depend on a) whether or not teams pay him extra attention and b) him making the most of his opportunities when he's not doubled.

OFFENSIVE LINE: D

It wasn't that the offensive line allowed Brady to be overwhelmed by pressure throughout the game. He was sacked once, hit five times and hurried four more. By comparison, he was pressured 15 times in last year's meeting with the Steelers. This grade is based largely on the group's failures in critical situations. They had six penalties total. Marcus Cannon had a critical holding penalty called against him, as did Shaq Mason -- both in the fourth quarter. Trent Brown was hit for a hold and he was flagged for a false start with two minutes remaining (though it was called on Joe Thuney). Cannon was also called for a false start in the second quarter and he allowed a sack to TJ Watt, who gave both tackles plenty of issues (two hits, two hurries). While Brady could've handled pressure better on each of his team's final two drives, the fact that there was pressure was on his blockers. "We've been letting our teammates down," David Andrews said Monday. "It's not easy when you're watching the film and you've got a good play, [then] you're stopping yourself, putting yourself in third-and-15, second-and-15. It's a hard way to play football."

SPECIAL TEAMS: B

The floating-man downed punt by Jonathan Jones was enough to boost this grade a mark or two. Not just because of how it looked but because it had the potential to be a momentum-shifting play in the game. Of course, moments later the Steelers were at midfield in large part because the Patriots run defense couldn't get a stop. But that doesn't take away from the play itself. Jonathan Jones (the floating man), Rex Burkhead (who somehow kept his feet off the goal line), Matthew Slater (who had the presence of mind to avoid the football in mid-air) and Ramon Humber all deserve kudos for downing that thing at the one. Ryan Allen was strong in the punt game on more than just that one punt, knocking three inside the 20, and Stephen Gostkowski made his only field goal try. This grade would be a bit higher if not for three special teams penalties: false start, delay of game and ineligible downfield.

DEFENSIVE LINE: C-

The good news is the Patriots decreased their yards per carry average about three full yards in one week. The bad news is they still allowed 6.3 yards per attempt. That falls largely on this group. On the first rush attempt of the game, the Steelers moved tight end Vance McDonald to help open a hole -- something both the Vikings and Dolphins did in the two weeks prior with success -- and picked up an easy six yards. It didn't get much better after that. Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler had issues holding the point of attack late, Malcom Brown and even Trey Flowers had their issues getting push. The result was gaudy rush numbers. Numbers that actually would've been better had the Steelers not run to kill clock late in the fourth quarter, getting stuffed four times for two yards or fewer. Pressures were few and far between for this unit as they racked up four hits (two for Lawrence Guy) and no sacks. Flowers and Brown were each called for penalties in this one.

LINEBACKERS: C 

The linebacker group was relatively quiet overall, particularly in the run game, but they made their presence felt with effective pass-rush reps. Kyle Van Noy did a stellar job to time a Steelers snap in the first quarter for an easy sack through the "A" gap. That was followed by a Jonathan Jones sack two plays later and a punt. Dont'a Hightower had a pressure in the second that was followed up by the threat of double-mug pressure which forced Ben Roethlisberger into a poor throw and a pick. One play that kept this grade where it is was John Simon's no-man's-land snap in coverage. Typically used as a pass-rusher, he got caught on Jaylen Samuels and then left his assignment when he saw Roethlisberger scramble. Not yet over the line of scrimmage, Roethlisberger hit Samuels easily for a drive-extending third-down conversion. The Steelers chewed up over five minutes of clock on their final drive of the game.

SECONDARY: B+

This group can take a large portion of the credit for why the Steelers weren't able to crack 20 points on Sunday. Stephon Gilmore spent the majority of the game on Antonio Brown and locked him up when he did. On four targets, Brown had just two catches and eight yards receiving. Gilmore broke up the other two passes sent his way when he was on Brown. Arguably the top receiver in football, Brown was frustrated to the point that he got into it with Gilmore well away from a play run into the middle of the line of scrimmage in the third quarter. "He had a little dirty play on me," Gilmore said. "Grabbed my helmet. Just dirty, but we're competing out there." Meanwhile, JC Jackson shadowed JuJu Smith-Schuster all night and held him to three catches for 39 yards on eight targets. He broke up a would-be touchdown in the fourth quarter by getting his hand up to the catch point and ripping his arm through so effectively that it appeared as though he had an outside chance at intercepting the thing. Duron Harmon picked off one pass when Roethlisberger made his worst throw of the game, sailing it over Smith-Schuster's head, and he picked another deflected by Gilmore. There was a breakdown in coverage when Jason McCourty was looking for help on Brown and didn't get any, which led to a touchdown. Patrick Chung was also beaten in the end zone for a score by tight end Vance McDonald. Otherwise, this unit was very sound against the Steelers passing game. The only reason this grade isn't in the "A" range is that they were guilty in helping allow some of the runs that had Samuels churn out 142 yards on 19 carries.

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