So far, special forces
Patriots getting something extra
FOXBOROUGH — Norv Turner on Wednesday called the Patriots “undoubtedly one of the most complete teams in the league.’’
The Chargers coach lauded New England’s potent offense (“Obviously, leading the league in scoring’’) and improving defense (“It’s what we’re all trying to get done, get better each week as you go through the season, particularly early, and certainly they’re doing that’’), but Turner did not allow the Patriots’ special teams to go unnoticed.
“It’s the best special teams group we will have played against to this point,’’ Turner said. “I’m extremely impressed.’’
And he should be.
The Patriots departed for San Diego yesterday with a 4-1 record cobbled together not only by their offense and defense, but also by the timely contributions from their special teams unit, which was responsible for 40 combined points in New England’s 41-14 victory Oct. 4 at Miami and last Sunday’s 23-20 overtime victory over Baltimore.
The verdict against the Ravens was sealed not only by Stephen Gostkowski’s 35-yard field goal in overtime, but also by Zoltan Mesko’s booming 65-yard punt in OT that backed up Baltimore to its 19-yard line.
“I think sometimes it comes down to probability,’’ said Mesko. “Things have gone in our favor and maybe it’ll be vice versa in San Diego. But it’s a new game Sunday. I mean, you can’t rely on your past success to perform for you on Sunday, so you’ve got to deliver.’’
This season, the Patriots’ special teams are succeeding in doing just that: delivering when it matters most.
“We all know how important the kicking game is and we all put a lot of emphasis on it, and Scott O’Brien does a tremendous job,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, praising his special teams coach. “He’s as good as any coach I’ve ever coached with and we try to be good at it every week. It’s a combination of scheme and fundamentals and technique and, of course, it always comes down to the specialists: your returners, your kickers, and your snappers.
“If those guys do a good job, then you have a chance to be good. If they don’t do a good job, then it’s hard for the other 10 guys to overcome that. It’s hard to be a good punting team if you can’t punt and it’s hard to be a good return team if you can’t return. So the specialists play an important part of it, but at the same time you have to have a core group of guys to go with them.’’
That was never more evident than in the Week 4 triumph at Miami, as special teams were responsible for 29 New England points. Gostkowski converted 23- and 30-yard field goals to keep the Patriots within 7-6 at halftime. Then Brandon Tate opened the second half with a 103-yard kickoff return for a 13-7 lead, and Patrick Chung blocked a punt that was recovered at the Miami 15 and led to a 12-yard TD run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis two plays later. Chung then blocked a fourth-quarter field goal attempt, which Kyle Arrington returned 35 yards for a score that made it 34-14, before Chung punctuated the victory with a 51-yard interception return.
Chung wasn’t even recognized after the Miami game as the AFC’s Special Teams Player of the Week. The honor went to Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee, who kicked a franchise-record 59-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Colts.
“He did a good job,’’ Chung said of Scobee, when asked the following week about the apparent snub. “Hats off to him. I’m not one of those guys. We’ve got plenty of games to go.’’
That selfless approach has seemingly permeated the Patriots’ special teams unit.
“I think the general public kind of overlooks the special teams sometimes, they don’t understand the importance it really has in a game and how impactful it can be,’’ said second-year long snapper Jake Ingram, who plays as important a role as anyone in the kicking game. “Like coaches always talk about, it’s a third of the game. You got special teams, you got offense, and you got defense. You’ve got to do well in all three phases of the game. I think when things go wrong on special teams, maybe that’s when people notice a little bit more. Or when things go right — really right — that’s when they start to take notice.’’
And, lately, fans have taken note of how the Patriots have been able to tilt the field in their favor through special teams play, ranking second in kickoff return average (31.0) and third in net punting average (44.2).
Against the Chargers, the Patriots will face a special teams unit that has struggled, allowing 30 points in its last three games, including 14 in a 27-20 loss to the Seahawks. In that game, Seattle’s Leon Washington scored on kickoff returns of 101 and 99 yards, the latter of which broke a 20-20 tie with 6:24 remaining.
Tate, who was limited to one kickoff return of 19 yards against the Ravens, certainly will be champing at the bit to go the distance against the Chargers.
“Every game I’m always looking at it like that,’’ said Tate, who also scored on a 97-yard kickoff return at the outset of the second half of the season-opening win over the Bengals. “But this game I’m just going into it as whatever happens, happens. I’ll just go out and execute all my plays.
“But you’re not going to score every game. It’d be good if we did, but you’re not going to score every game, so you just have to pick your spots and be smart.’’
Conversely, Gostkowski has helped the Patriots minimize the opposition’s scoring opportunities on kickoffs by driving 19 of his 29 kicks into the end zone, with 13 downed for touchbacks, the second most in the league. Gostkowski seemed to take as much pride in that as he did about overcoming a 1-for-4 start on field goals, responding by making his last six.
“Any time you can give those guys a break who are running down there full speed, trying to tackle somebody, I know they respect it a lot,’’ Gostkowski said. “I know however many touchbacks I get, it’s one less chance a team has to score a touchdown, so that’s the way I look at it.
“I just try to give the guys running down there making a tackle the best kick possible, whether it’s distance, hang time, or direction,’’ Gostkowski said. “Touchbacks are just an added bonus.’’
As are the bonus points the special teams have produced this season.
“I think any time you get what I would call ‘bonus points,’ whether it’s a defensive score or special teams score, the correlation between that and winning is high,’’ Belichick said. “I’m not sure if it’s 90 percent, but it’s definitely high. In the National Football League, when you have roughly half of the games being decided by a touchdown or less, if you can get those 7 points that basically you can’t count on, but when you get those bonus points, that tilts a lot of games right there.
“There’s no question those are huge plays, whether they come on defense or special teams. There’s just not a lot of them, so if you can come up with one, that gives you a big edge.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.