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Special meaning

Special teams put Cassel in position to succeed

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / September 16, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - The consensus after the Patriots' 19-10 victory over the New York Jets Sunday was that quarterback Matt Cassel, making his first NFL start, outperformed Jets quarterback/national media darling Brett Favre.

While Cassel was efficient and effective in guiding the offense, the two teams finished with nearly identical net yards - 260 for the Patriots and 256 for the Jets - and had identical rushing totals (104 yards).

The biggest difference - besides Favre's foolish third-quarter interception - was that Cassel and the Patriots had less turf to traverse to get into scoring range, courtesy of outstanding play from their special teams.

Thanks to Stephen Gostkowski's booming kickoffs and Kevin Faulk's serpentine punt returns, the Patriots enjoyed a decided advantage in field position. Their average starting position was their own 42, while Favre and the Jets began, on average, at their own 21.

So Cassel and the Patriots had a head start of more than one-fifth of the field on Broadway Brett and the Jets, making Cassel's job of managing the game in place of Tom Brady that much more manageable.

"I think just in terms of managing the game it's a lot easier to move the ball 50 yards or sometimes 15 yards into scoring position than it is to move it 60," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "That's the advantage of field position. This was a big field-position game, and I thought that in the kicking game that our special teams unit and [special teams coach] Brad [Seely], they did a great job."

Nobody tilted the field - or the outcome - more than Gostkowski, who in addition to nailing a career-high-tying four field goals blasted five of his six kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. The sixth kickoff was 4 yards deep in the end zone, but Leon Washington elected to take it out and was belted by Ray Ventrone at the 20, essentially a sixth touchback.

"He had a great day," said Belichick. "He hit them going in both directions, too. He kicked the ball well, and really did a good job on the field goals. It was a good operation with [long snapper] Lonie [Paxton] and [holder] Chris [Hanson] on the field goals, but on the kickoffs, that was pretty much a one-man show there. You kick it out of the back of the end zone and you and me could run down and cover."

While Gostkowski was pinning the Jets deep in their territory, Faulk, who was making his regular-season debut after being suspended by the NFL one game for violating the league's drug policy, was picking up field position for the Patriots on punt returns. The 10-year veteran had three punt returns for 53 yards, a 17.7-yard average.

His 14-yard return in the first quarter put the Patriots at the Jets 48 and led to Gostkowski's second field goal. A 24-yard return in the third quarter let Cassel & Co., start at the New York 39, setting up another Gostkowski chip-shot field goal. Finally, Faulk's 15-yard return in the fourth quarter advanced the ball to the Jets 47 and allowed New England to simply have to run out the final 3:45.

Under the terms of Faulk's suspension, which stemmed from an offseason marijuana possession case, he did not receive a game check for Sunday. His teammates should chip in and give him a piece of theirs.

"Kevin did a great job," said wide receiver Wes Welker, the Patriots' primary punt returner last season. "He has an uncanny ability to make plays. It's huge having a guy like that that you can trust to make three, four, five big plays a game."

The play of the special teams will only be magnified in the coming weeks as the Patriots, sans Brady, reprise the grind-it-out, every-play-counts ethos that they rode to victory earlier this decade, when Brady was just an inexperienced QB and not an international icon.

Special teams captain Larry Izzo said that regardless of who is at quarterback or the Patriots' style of play, special teams can influence the outcome of a contest just as much as offense or defense.

"It was definitely a big factor in this game and every game it is whether the score indicates that or not," said Izzo. "Each week the plays that happen in the kicking game translate to the rest of the team. We can help both the offense and defense by getting our return game going or good coverage or having good kicks. It all works together."

Izzo said there is still room for improvement, starting this Sunday, at home, against the Miami Dolphins.

He pointed to trying to spring Ellis Hobbs in the kickoff-return game.

In addition, Hanson had a fantastic 59-yard punt in the third quarter that carried Washington out of bounds at the Jets 23. However, Hanson, who averaged 50 yards on three punts, twice failed to pin New York deep in its own territory on pooch punts-turned-touchbacks.

But if the special teams can keep giving Cassel a short field and the defense a long one, then the Patriots will be in prime position to capitalize.

"We realize every week that a lot of field position is determined by what we do in the kicking game, and our job is to go out there and have an edge there," said Izzo. "I think that we did that, and we're going to need to do that next week as well."

Christopher Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com

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