Let’s get it back to the Eagles.
We’ve got a Super Bowl to prepare for this weekend, and while we can continue to cover every god damn angle of the build up, like the ban on Boston cream donuts or the corny bet between mayors, it’s time to start talking about the game itself.
Now, normally I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about the New England Patriots’ special teams. But this is the SB we’re talking about, so yeah, we’re gonna analyze this vile and repulsive NFL franchise to see how they perform in this phase of the game.
And we’ll do it for the offense and defense as well, but that’s coming later this week.
Here’s part one of our preview series:
Stephen Gostkowski was, again, one of the NFL’s best kickers this season.
He went 45 for 47 on extra points and finished 37 of 40 on field goal attempts for a top-five, 92.5% success rate.
Here’s how he finished from each distance:
- 1-19 yards: 0 for 0
- 20-29 yards: 16 for 16 (100%)
- 30-39 yards: 9 for 9 (100%)
- 40-49 yards: 8 for 11 (72.7%)
- 50+ yards: 4 for 4 (100%)
He was right in the middle of the pack for total attempts from 50+ yards, but nailed every single one of them, including a 62-yarder against the Raiders in Mexico City:
En honor del cumpleaños de Gostkowski, aquí el FG de 62 yardas que conectó en CDMX. #GoPats🇲🇽
— Corazón Patriota (@PatsHeartMX) January 28, 2018
The numbers hold up, considering the different distances he was asked to kick from. And it’s interesting to note that only twice before has he been asked to attempt 40 or more field goals in a single season. The Patriots called on him a bit more than they typically do, and he put up his third-best single-season FG% in response.
He’s 1-2 this postseason, hitting a 31-yarder against the Jag-wires and missing a 53-yarder in the Tennessee game. He had made 22 straight postseason field goals before that miss. It was his first botched playoff field goal since 2009, so go figure. Gostkowski was 7-7 last year and 4-4 in 2015, though he did miss 3 extra points in the same time frame.
That’s really been the only blemish on an otherwise stellar career. He missed an XP in the 2015 AFC Championship game, forcing a late two-point conversion in the eventual loss to Denver. Gostkowski blamed himself for the defeat, but Bill Belichick defended his kicker post-game.
As far as kickoffs, he led the NFL with 99 of ’em. That’s what happens when you score a shit ton of points. Opponents only took 40 touchbacks, but returned the ball an average of 18.9 yards when they did bring it out of the end zone, so they probably should have just taken a knee.
I won’t get too far into the weeds with weather and surface and whatever, since the Super Bowl in a (mostly) invariable dome this year, but Gostkowki’s 11 postseason kickoffs at Gillette Stadium were returned 6 times for an average of 20.7 yards. His regular season field goal misses were at MetLife and Gillette (twice), and the weather looked to be fine in both of those games. You’d have to call John Bolaris to double check. The XP misses were at New Orleans (dome) and at Pittsburgh.
Ryan Allen only punted the ball 58 times this season. For comparison, shitty teams like the Giants and Jets booted it 95 and 94 times each, respectively.
He dropped 41% of those 58 punts inside the 20 yard line with just three touchbacks and 14 fair catches. Opponents returned 23 punts for just 105 yards and no scores.
The thing with Allen is that he’s a lefty. The Pats have almost exclusively used left footed punters in recent years, which Sports Illustrated wrote about a few weeks back:
Discerning the percentage of left-footers in the United States is complicated by the fact than many of us have no idea which is our dominant foot. But, with only about 10% of the population being left-handed, having close to one-third of punters in the league being left-footed appears to be outside the norm. (By comparison, there was just a single left-footed kicker in the league this year, Oakland’s Giorgio Tavecchio).
The simple answer is that left-footed punts spin the opposite direction, counterclockwise (from the punter’s perspective), presenting an extra challenge for returners who are used to reading a right-footer’s spin. From the punt’s apex, a left-footed ball will fade to the returner’s right, whereas most returners are used to catching right-footed balls that fade to their left. That has the potential to cause a returner to hesitate or, even better for the punting team, to muff the catch. The search for answers usually ends there.
It may or may not be the explanation for this Kenjon Barner muff on a left-footed punt from Michael Palardy back in October:
Maybe it was the proximity of the gunner and his teammate that threw him off.
Either way, it’s certainly something to think about. Jacksonville did. They brought a lefty in to work out their returners last week:
Thank you @Jaguars for working me out today. Helped the returners prepare for the Patriots.
— Brock Miller (@hashtagbrock) January 17, 2018
I’d bring Brock up to Minnesota and have him punt 1,000 balls to Barner this week in preparation for the big game. And if Barner drops one, he has to take 1,000 more reps until he catches 1,000 in a row.
If you watched the AFC Championship game, you might have wondered why the Patriots were being a bit conservative while playing from behind. They punted twice from midfield areas and again while trailing 20-17, but it’s really because Belichick showed a lot of trust in Allen to flip the field before getting a defensive stop.
It’s 4th and 10 from the Jacksonville 45 yard line with 6:01 left to play. You’re down three with three timeouts. Belichick punts, Allen hits the 10 yard line, and now Blake Bortles has to move the ball a considerable distance to flip the field the other way.
New England really isn’t that much different from Minnesota in the way they play a smart field position game. The Vikings never got to play that game, though, since the Eagles were aggressive and opportunistic in building up that big lead last week. New England will try to roll with this style no matter what the situation is, because they’re proven about a million times before that they can overcome all sorts of deficits. They were right around middle of the pack this year with 13 4th-down attempts, so they’re much more conservative than Doug Pederson in this regard.
Returning, tackling, and gunning
Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola are the kick and punt returners, respectively.
Lewis had a really nice season in this area, finishing fourth in the NFL with a 24.8 yard average on 23 attempts. He took a 103-yard return to the house in Denver:
— NFL (@NFL) November 13, 2017
Amendola finished 14th in the NFL with 8.6 yards per punt return. That number is 10.4 in the postseason with 52 yards on five attempts. Lewis’s playoff average is down a few yards on just a handful of returns.
As far as coverage, they have/had some good open-field tacklers. Nate Ebner might have been the best of the bunch before going on injured reserve after tearing an ACL. Same with Jonathan Jones, who went on IR after the Titans win with a foot injury. Matthew Slater, the special teams captain, IS healthy and is playing well, as usual.
Slater and Jones are the first string gunners. Jones was replaced by Johnson Bademosi after the injury, and I didn’t see much of a dropoff or change in performance last week.
An interesting wrinkle is something Baldy pointed out two weeks ago, when Tennessee was throwing a double team at Jones and putting one guy on Slater:
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) January 16, 2018
Slater gets a great jump off the line and usually gets through clean.
Jacksonville didn’t double either guy and instead showed a more traditional punt return look. Slater is on the top of the screen here and Bademosi is on the bottom:
Pretty clinical stuff there. It’s a 53-yard punt with nice hang time, Slater zooms off the line and gets down the field untouched, forcing a fair catch right around the 20 yard line.
Go through the film and you see those types of plays everywhere. New England has always had a solid special teams unit under Bill Belichick and it’s a big part of why he’s won however many Super Bowls. What is it, five, right? I sometimes lose track.