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Especially challenging

Patriots, O'Brien have work cut out

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / May 24, 2009
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No NFL head coach looks forward to a special teams turnover, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who gained legitimate entree into the league as an assistant special teams coach, is no exception. But some turnovers are unavoidable.

This offseason, the Patriots endured their biggest special teams turnover of the decade. Gone are special teams coach Brad Seely, long snapper Lonie Paxton, special teams captain Larry Izzo, cornerback/kickoff returner Ellis Hobbs, and wide receiver/special teams ace Kelley Washington.

Seely, the special teams coach since 1999, Paxton, and Izzo were part of all three Patriots Super Bowl championships. Hobbs helped New England finish in the top five in kickoff-return average each of the last three seasons, and Washington had the team's only blocked punt since 1999.

To replace Seely, who became assistant head coach/special teams coordinator of the Cleveland Browns, Belichick went back to the future, tapping Scott O'Brien, who was Belichick's special teams coach with the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95.

O'Brien has experience in the NFL - 16 years as a special teams coach - and experience taking over for Seely; he succeeded Seely in Carolina in 1999, after Seely left for New England.

"You start at the evaluation process, starting with specialists and players that become core players for you," said O'Brien, who spent the last two seasons coaching special teams in Denver. "You put in a new system and see who adjusts and who can't.

"Every year you're going through the same thing - maybe it's not as drastic as losing your kickoff returner, long snapper, and core special teams captain, but every year you have to deal with something.

"Bill being a head coach the way he is, he is involved in all facets and involved in the kicking game. He has the foresight to have players trained and ready to take over for him. It's new and, obviously, we have some major needs, and we need young players to step up and we'll see how they can handle it."

Some of the key replacements the 51-year-old O'Brien needs are in place. Wide receiver Sam Aiken came to the Patriots last season with a reputation as a special teams standout, and his ability to also contribute on offense allowed the Patriots to release Washington.

Second-year safety/wide receiver Matthew Slater was drafted with hopes of becoming a game-breaking return man but fizzled and fumbled as a rookie. Still, Slater has the type of blazing speed that O'Brien was able to parlay into Pro Bowl play with returners Jermaine Lewis in Baltimore and Michael Bates and Steve Smith in Carolina.

"I'm not going to give any predictions," said O'Brien. "It's so early to evaluate players.

"I can tell you I really liked Matt coming out of UCLA, myself. How far he'll go I'm not sure. Physically, he has a lot of talent, as much talent as a lot of guys I've coached in my career.

"The short time I've been around him I know he has a great attitude and passion for the game - he wants to be good - and those are the type of players you want.

"We'll see how far he's come from his rookie year, and we'll take it from there."

O'Brien also hinted that the team could redeploy running back Laurence Maroney, coming back from a broken bone in his shoulder, as a kickoff returner to help offset the loss of Hobbs, who finished second in the NFL last season in return average (28.5 yards).

"Anybody on the team is a potential option," said O'Brien. "It's what fits the team the best at the time. The better the options you have, the better you'll be. We'll get him going back there, too."

The acquisitions the Patriots made to replace Paxton, who defected for Denver and a five-year, $5.38 million deal, and Izzo, a three-time Pro Bowler who signed a one-year deal with the AFC East rival New York Jets, have O'Brien's fingerprints on them.

Long snapper Nathan Hodel, who will compete with rookie Jake Ingram, started his career with O'Brien in Carolina in 2001. Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu is a Minnesota Vikings castoff, but the Boston College product got his start as a special teams player on Carolina's practice squad in 2003.

When Ciurciu is asked about O'Brien's coaching style, his answer might lead you to believe he was talking about Belichick.

"I think his approach to the whole game, the way we practice, the way we prepare is a lot different from a lot of other teams," said Ciurciu. "There is no wasted time. He's going to give you exactly what you need to know. He's going to give you exactly what they do, and he's pretty on point when it comes to that."

In rookie minicamp and the first organized team activity (both noncontact affairs) O'Brien used a drill in which players had to mimic kickoff-coverage fits by taking on players holding blocking pads. Ciurciu said the drill is something he experienced only in Carolina with O'Brien.

"Learning the concepts of what you're doing on kickoff, kickoff return, punt, whatever it is, that can be difficult to do, not only knowing your role but how you fit in it," said Hodel. "So Scotty does a great job, whether it's practice or in the classroom, of helping guys to understand both sides, both your role and the concept, and guys have been successful doing it."

Indeed, in his 16 seasons with the Browns, Ravens (1996-98), Panthers (1999-2004), and Broncos, O'Brien's units have produced 29 special teams scores, including 17 punt returns.

Half of Eric Metcalf's NFL-record 10 career punt-return TDs came under O'Brien's watch in Cleveland, and in his first season in Denver, O'Brien coaxed the Broncos to their first punt-return score in four years.

That could be good news for the Patriots, who haven't had a punt returned for a touchdown since 2001.

However, O'Brien's teams struggled on coverage in Denver. In 2007, his team was 26th in punt coverage and 19th in kickoff coverage, allowing two punt-return touchdowns and one kickoff TD. Last season, Denver ranked 28th in both categories and gave up both a punt-return and kickoff-return touchdown.

Last season, the Patriots were second to last in the NFL in punt coverage and 10th in kickoff coverage, but they surrendered a pair of kickoff-return scores.

"Our No. 1 responsibility in the kicking game is to control vertical field position," said O'Brien. "That's what players work hard for, and we work hard to put them in the right place to do that, and any time there is a breakdown . . . it's disappointing."

Those who have worked with O'Brien before say this is one special teams turnover that won't cost the Patriots.

"They've had very good special teams here, too," said Ciurciu. "I think he's just going to bring some more experience, a little bit of a twist on the game, because he's been around, and he knows a lot of different little things. Just his experience and knowledge of the game is going to help us."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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