Most NFL franchises dedicate their special teams to fringe roster players and backups, whereas the NewEngland Patriots have multiple roster spots strictly for special teams players.
I’m not just referring to kick returners, but players that possess a high football IQ and can execute orders that require an extensive understanding of timing, angles, and leverage.
Matthew Slater has been with New England since 2008 and has eight Pro Bowl selections under his belt as a special teamer. A fifth-round pick out of UCLA designated a wide receiver, Slater earned his keep on special teams and was re-signed this past offseason.
Nate Ebner, who just signed with the Giants, is a safety by trade, but he wasn’t drafted by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2012 draft to play defense. He was drafted to excel on special teams.
Brandon Bolden is a Patriots’ running back who does everything on special teams, while occasionally scoring a touchdown or two to infuriate fantasy football owners.
Too many teams in the league neglect this unit, but the Patriots are not one of them, and the Giants, who have been better in this area since hiring Thomas McGaughey, will probably take their special teams to a whole new level.
McGaughey’s unit was led by Michael Thomas and ranked second in kick-off coverage, by limiting opponents to only 20.4 yards per return, and 7th in punt coverage with an average of 6.6 yards per return. They also averaged about five more yards per kick-off return and experienced a slight bump in punt return.
The addition of Judge, Ebner, and some of these draft picks should make the Giants even more formidable in 2020.
According to Pro Football Outsiders weighted special teams rank, the Patriots finished 10th in the NFL; Pro Football Focus had New England ranked second, and that’s with an unstable kicker situation.
The Patriots cycled through Nick Folk, Kai Forbath, Stephan Gostkowski, and Mike Nugent, but Jake Bailey proved to be a great rookie punter for the team. What New England was able to do with this unit is game-changing; they had three special teams takeaways and blocked four kicks in 2019.
We remember this blocked kick all too well; the Giants come out in protect with two gunners on each side. What the Patriots often do is come out in an unbalanced line to overload one side of the line of scrimmage.
Since no one can line up directly over the long snapper, New England focuses on one side of the line and tries to overpower that side, while slipping a smaller defender underneath blocks.
Once the snap happens, the “2-technique” hits the long snapper, and it becomes 5-on-5 to that boundary side. The Patriots hope to push the protectors vertically and try to have one of their own slip through one of the gaps.
That doesn’t happen in this case, but the Giants Nate Stupar (No. 45) gets bull-rushed back by Brandon Bolden (No. 38). This causes the deflection and the eventual touchdown.
Look at the alignment; it's no wonder teams struggle to defend this type of unit. The Giants have to expand to locate 5, while trying to stay balanced, in very tight quarters, to block 1, 2, 3, and 4.
The Patriots get off the ball so low and 4 hits 4, Stupar, while he’s trying to work position 3 inside to David Mayo (No. 55). Stupar is off balance and in a bad position because of the Patriots scheming.
Here’s a similar alignment only exacerbated.
The first picture is 10 seconds before the snap, and the second picture is right before the snap.
The Patriots put six defensive players against four, including the center, with No. 24 carrying out a fake, while neglecting to see the formation right in front of him.
The Patriots also give their opponents a short amount of time to adjust. Look at the two pictures below and see how fluid the defenders are.
Keeping your opponent on their toes is a great strategy to create confusion and chaos within the trenches, and that’s what happened here for the Chiefs.
Position 6 on the Patriots drives the long snapper back and to the right, while Patriots’ positions 4, 3, 2, and 1 all overload the other three defenders.
The problem for the Chiefs is that Nate Ebner (position 5), who stays very low, almost hidden between Slater and Adam Butler (No. 70), while exploding through a cleared path.
The Chiefs position 3 had little choice here and must have assumed that either #24 or position 4 would have picked up Ebner, but that did not happen, and the Patriots came up with a huge turnover.
The Patriots also blocked punts in 2020 around the edge. Against the Bills, in a fourth and long situation, the Patriots put nine men on the line of scrimmage with one deep and one other player splitting the field between the line of scrimmage and the gunner’s “route” if the punter decided to get frosty.
New England rushes ten against eight and can get around the edge and block a kick against Buffalo.
I can realistically see Cam Brown being utilized in this fashion by the Giants; his quick trigger and immediate acceleration downhill, combined with his length, are recipes that Judge will love to see on special teams.
These kinds of blocks are reserved for fourth and long, due to the precarious nature of sending ten guys and having a punter throw the ball to an open receiver over their heads.
This is not a punt, but a well-executed punt return for the Patriots. Again, the Patriots attempt to overload the boundary side of the Steelers punt block team, but they line 3 guys up to the field as well, to prevent a snap to an up-back, since it was 4th and somewhat manageable.
The Patriots do an excellent job handling the gunners with inside leverage on the outside while riding their inside hips throughout the play to prevent them from getting to the punt returner.
At the catch point, there’s a narrow alley for the punt returner to run through, but the alley is there because of how the gunners are handled.
The eight guys on the line of scrimmage all crash the interior gaps; Jamie Collins (No. 58) attacks the outside shoulder of the long snapper, while Bolden loops behind him into the field A-Gap and Ebner follows suit on a twist around to try and free up a defender and have some Steelers’ players blocking no one.
The Patriots can’t block the kick, but they handle the coverage well and get a great return. The far Patriot on the field also drops off the line of scrimmage, waits for the punt to happen, and falls back into coverage to handle the first Steelers’ blocker to get downfield.
It's a nice return, a nice schematic attempt to block the punt, and a great job by the Patriots' outside players.
In modern football, the kick-off usually results in a touchback, but not all the time. Pay attention to the outermost defenders; they’re not the contain defender in this clip, and I’ve seen some NFL teams do this type of kick-off.
While running, the second outermost defender assumes the contain role, who does not allow anyone outside of him, while the outermost defender at the time of the kick executes another assignment.
At the top of the screen, the outermost defender at the time of the kick penetrates the Eagles’ return team early and can ensure that the eagles’ kick returner is squeezed inside.
At the bottom of the screen, the Patriots’ defender runs towards the middle of the field, eyeing the kick returner’s path and acting as an alley defender for how the Eagles were blocking for the kick returner. He was the last line of defense before the actual last line of defense, who is, of course, the kicker himself.
Coach Judge is likely going to bring this three-phase mentality that’s easy to preach but often forgotten about, from NFL teams. This will be a welcomed sight to Giants fans; Judge, combined with McGaughey, should take an already solid special teams unit to the next level.