Whatever the plan was for kickoffs Sunday night against the Chiefs, it didn’t work.
There was the 97-yard kickoff return the coverage team allowed early in the fourth quarter which led to a 3-yard touchdown and the Chiefs only lead of the night (33-30).
And there was the smother-hook kickoff from Stephen Gostkowski fielded by Spencer Ware at the Chiefs 35 and returned 10 yards to put the Chiefs in business at their 45.
The Chiefs offense was enough of a threat from 80 yards away. Putting them on a short field was practically handing them points.
After the game, I asked Gostkowski what the plan was on the semi-squib since it didn’t appear the Patriots were trying to recover the thing.
“It was a bad kick,” said Gostkowski. “I’m not gonna get into it. It just wasn’t very well executed and put that one on me.”
As for the high-arcing kickoff the Chiefs returned 97 yards, I asked Gostkowski if he can just kick it through the end zone whenever he wants.
“I wish,” he said.
When the NFL enacted a slew of new kickoff rules in the offseason, I figured the Patriots would be ahead of the curve in taking advantage of them. Kickoff coverage has been a strong suit of this team and Gostkowski’s ability to shape his kicks and work in concert with his unit has been at the heart of that.
Not this year. Currently, the Patriots are 30th in the league allowing 27.4 yards on kickoff returns. It’s a precipitous drop. They were third in the NFL last year in average return allowed (18.9), third in 2016 (19.3), second in 2015 (18.1) and fifth in 2014 (21.2).
Gostkowski is last in the league in net kickoff average (38.35).
In recent years, short kickoffs have been an opportunity for the Patriots. Gostkowski was 30th in the league last year in touchback percentage but it didn’t matter because the Patriots were covering like fiends. The Patriots had 20 kickoffs on which they made the opposing offense start inside the 20 (20.2 percent), best in the NFL.
This year, the Patriots have kept the return team inside its 20 just twice on 37 kickoffs (5.4 percent), 18th in the league.
This isn’t an issue that can be traced to any physical issues with Gostkowski. He’s killing the ball, making 32 of his 33 kicks (PATs and FGs combined). It’s everything. As Bill Belichick said on Tuesday.
“We just got to do a better job,” he explained. “It's a multiple number of things. We've got to coach better. We've got to kick better. We've got to cover better. We need to tackle better. We're just not doing a good job, period.”
Belichick at first resisted the notion that past success is relevant.
“Who really cares about last year, or two years ago, or five years ago or 20 years ago?” he said. “I'm not saying there isn't some carryover, but we're playing new teams. There's different matchups. Look, every kick in this league is different. They're not all the same. You match up different kicks with different returns. We have a basic way we do things but we're obviously not getting it done well enough. We need to do a better job of coaching it and a better job of executing it.”
Perhaps the biggest kickoff alteration that’s affecting the Patriots is that the NFL banned running starts. Instead of being able to start at the 30 and get a head of steam by the time the ball was kicked off from the 35, coverage guys now have to go from a dead-stop at the 35.
Given how fast the best coverage players are, that tweak probably means as much as 5 yards lost in the distance players have gone when a kickoff is hauled in. And that extra space means the return man can gather, plot his course and get himself a head of steam instead of being smothered.
“I think it's definitely slowed that down a little bit, maybe a step or so, 40 yards later or 30 yards later,” Belichick said. “There's been rules on both sides – the return team, the kicking team, where they align, where the kicking team aligns and so forth. It is what it is. Everybody’s playing with the same set of rules so we just need to do a better job of whatever the situation is.”
And regardless of the numbers through six games, is there any doubt the Patriots will eventually fix it? Not really.
No team in the league takes special teams more seriously than the Patriots. The fact they stock their coverage teams with starters and have a legacy of bona fide special teams superstars dating back to 2000 indicates to me that Belichick and special teams coordinator Joe Judge are still pulling levers and pushing buttons trying to figure out “best practices” (God, I hate that term) for the new kickoff realities.
Until they get it locked down, though, Patriots kickoffs will continue to be a nerve-jangling play to watch.
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