Naturally, every team would love for its kicker to gear up and send one to the moon, but there are other elements that come into play — the kicker’s leg detaching from his body and flying into the crowd, as the most extreme example.
“I focus more on hang time than anything,” New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski said. “And a lot of times, when I focus on hang time and hitting a good ball, it goes farther anyway. I don’t try to just drive it through the end zone. I just try to make good contact, and aim where I’m trying to aim and give the 10 guys running down there running their butts off the best chance to make a play inside the 25-[yard line]. I pride myself on getting good hang time and giving guys a lot of time to get down there and make a play.
“You can get in trouble if you try to just drive it down there. If you drive it, you better kick it out of the end zone. You can get in trouble with the low line driver.”
It was a unique occurrence during the Patriots’ Week 5 game in Denver, where the thin air allowed Gostkowski to wail away at the ball. Gostkowski is known to have one of the strongest legs in the league, but unless ideal weather conditions permit him to let one fly, there is a lot more strategy involved.
Gostkowski said that every half-second of hang time gives the coverage team a chance to run about five or 10 yards, so keeping the ball in the air is an obvious must.
The directional aspect can be tricky. Before anything, Gostkowski accounts for the weather — which is increasingly important in New England for the rest of the season — an aspect he’ll study during pregame warmups. If there is a strong right-to-left wind, for instance, Gostkowski will kick toward the left side of the field — with the direction of the wind — to help with the distance. Kicking into the wind would cause the ball to turn more, which will reduce its flight and distance. Also, if the Patriots’ coaching staff notices the opposing team is lining up with the intention of returning the ball to a particular side, it’s Gostkowski’s job to counter their plan.
Gostkowski and special teams coach Scott O’Brien discuss their strategy before every kickoff. In the end, the decision is mostly a compromise.
“After I kick a field goal or extra point, I go up to our coach and ask him what he thinks,” Gostkowski said. “He asks me what I think, and we have a simple discussion about it. If he says something, I say ‘OK.’ If he says, ‘What do you feel? I feel more comfortable going one way.’ I say, ‘Coach, I feel more comfortable going that way.’ It’s usually as simple as that.”
Gostkowski is averaging 67.2 yards per kickoff this season, which ranks ninth in the NFL and means the returner is catching the ball just inside the 3-yard line. The Patriots, however, are allowing 23.5 yards per return, which is 20th out of 32 teams and 4.5 yards worse than the top-ranked Redskins. Gostkowski has forced 13 touchbacks this season, and he ranks sixth in the league with a 30.2 touchback percentage.
Once again, the Patriots’ return unit has its work cut out this Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, but that isn’t anything new against AFC East opponents, who all have explosive returners. Miami returner Ted Ginn Jr. returned two kickoffs for touchdowns Sunday against the New York Jets, and he became the first person in NFL history to return two kickoffs for at least 100 yards in the same game. Ginn leads the league with 34.9 yards per kick return, which is 4.2 yards better than anyone else.
Gostkowski was well aware of Ginn’s performance last weekend, but the Patriots’ fourth-year kicker doesn’t particularly prepare for any returner on a week-to-week basis. Rather, it’s about consistency and solidifying things as much as possible for the coverage unit.
“My job is the same every time,” Gostkowski said. “If the returner is not as good, it doesn’t mean I kick the ball any less. I’m just trying to give the guys who do the real work a good chance to make a good play, and that’s all I can do. I can’t do any more, any less. Every once in awhile, I’ve got to stick my head in there and try to make a tackle, but that’s not very ideal for anybody on the team. I’m just doing my best to give a good kick. Guys appreciate touchbacks. Guys appreciate good kicks. Guys appreciate good hang time, and guys like [special teams captain Sam] Aiken and the core guys, they always come over and say, ‘Hey, good kick, good kick. You’re giving us a good chance.’ And you definitely take a lot of pride when guys are giving you those kind of props.”
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