|Brad Seely uses a fast-break huddle on kickoff coverage. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
GLENDALE, Ariz. - Strategy? What strategy? To the casual observer, there appears to be no strategy when it comes to the Patriots' kickoff coverage.
On the surface, it appears the only strategy involved is to line up 11 men across the 35-yard line in a downfield run to tackle the kick returner.
While that is the objective of any kickoff coverage team, it doesn't measure the real strategy involved in that phase of the game.
"Kickoff coverage is like any play in football," said Patriots special teams captain Larry Izzo. "Guys have certain places where they need to be and they have certain responsibilities. It's organized chaos, people flying around at high speeds and big collisions. When you break it down and study it, you can see it's just not a Chinese fire drill out there. People are trying to execute a play."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick made kickoff coverage a point of emphasis this week. He lauded the Giants as being "improved dramatically as a football team" since the teams' meeting in the regular-season finale Dec. 29, a 38-35 Patriots victory.
Belichick was mindful of how Giants kick returner Domenik Hixon changed the complexion of that game, scoring on a 74-yard kickoff return to give the Giants a 14-10 edge with 14:55 left before halftime.
"They returned kickoffs and that was the big equalizer in the game," Belichick said. "We had a few more yards than they did, but they more than offset that with their kickoff returns and their good field position. They return kicks well."
This season the Giants ranked seventh in the league in kickoff returns with a 23.9-yard average and the Patriots ranked 11th in the league, allowing an average of 22.1 yards. Hixon's touchdown return was the only one the Patriots allowed this season.
"Any kick return you watch in the NFL that's been returned for a touchdown, there's a number of factors that lead to that, and we didn't get it done," Izzo said. "There's a number of different things that didn't happen that needed to happen. That just shows you how dangerous these players are in the NFL. If you do not have one guy in the right place, or two guys, then you give up a touchdown and that's not what we're looking for."
As is the practice of most teams these days, the Patriots have tried to prevent big returns by disguising kickoff coverage schemes, deploying a "fast-break huddle" in which players bunch up near the 35-yard line, then fan out to their respective areas of responsibility as they charge downfield.
"Guys have done it the past five, six years; it's fairly new," said special teams coach Brad Seely. "I'd seen other people do it against us and thought it was difficult to play against and I just tried to incorporate it into our system. I hate to give credit to somebody because it's like all football; we all copy from everybody else."
So what is the strategy behind the fast-break huddle?
"Really, what we're trying to do in those situations is, hopefully, mess up the return team's ability to count where everybody is," Seely said. "That way we can move some guys around and maybe get a better personnel matchup; maybe our strength against their strength, or maybe our strength against their weakness.
"So that's why we're always moving those guys around."
The intent is to free up a tackler by preventing the opposition from spotting tendencies in the kick coverage schemes. "That's why we try to give them a little bit of a changeup with each kick," Seely said.
But, Seely indicated, the execution of the scheme sometimes requires quicker players to sacrifice themselves by taking up more than one blocker, which would allow others to make a tackle.
"We have fast guys who we call 'penetrators' who really aren't necessarily going to make a play, but we like them to take up as many blockers as they can," Seely said. "So they're getting down there and they're really trying to screw up the scheme of the kickoff return just by getting down there as fast as they can.
"Maybe they put one blocker, sometimes two or three on them and now that does create some [disruption]."
It all begins with the execution.
"I just try and kick it as high and as hard as possible," said Stephen Gostkowski. "If I have to make a tackle, I know where I have to be. They plan out schemes just like any other play, but not as complicated.
"The other team tries to do things to disguise things and we try to do things to disguise things and sometimes you just run down there and make a tackle," he added. "I think we have a really good kickoff crew and they take their job really seriously and it's a big part of the game. Coach Belichick says all the time if you want to see real football, tough football, then try to cover a kick.
"Guys on the team, no matter who they are, have a lot of respect for special teams."
Even if it appears there's no strategy involved.
"The thing I would say about it is it looks like mass confusion, but there's a method to our madness," Seely said. "You look at it and you go, 'What the heck are they doing?' But, hopefully, the end result is what we're trying to get, which is tackling this guy down near the 20, or inside the 20."
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.