FOXBORO, Mass. — Dec. 9, 1979.
That was the last time, before Sunday, that the New England Patriots had recorded a safety on special teams. Just a little context on how rare what we saw from Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Travis Benjamin truly was.
During the second quarter of the Patriots’ eventual 21-13 victory at Gillette Stadium, Benjamin muffed a Ryan Allen punt, scooped it up at his own 10-yard line, backtracked as he tried to reverse field and was buried in the end zone by the tandem of Brandon King and Jonathan Jones — two of New England’s better special teams players.
“That was a huge play in the game,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn told reporters after the game. “You have to have some awareness of where you are on the football field. And he did not.”
The two points gave the Patriots their first lead of the afternoon, and they added a field goal after receiving the ensuing free kick.
“It was good coverage,” said Jones, who also had an interception on the game’s final play and a key third-down pass breakup. “The whole unit was down there. We were able to rally around (Benjamin). He ran back into the end zone, we were able to rally around him and make the play in the end zone.”
Benjamin has blazing speed, and he returned a punt for a touchdown last week in a win over the Denver Broncos. Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said the punt coverage unit knew containing him would be a full-team effort.
“When you’ve got a guy with that kind of speed, nothing surprises you,” Slater said. “I’m sure he’s confident that he can outrun anyone in this league. And we’re really talking about covering him, all 11 of us doing our job covering him. And I think that was a prime example of it. He started on the sideline and tried to reverse field, and Brandon and Jonathan did a great job of being disciplined and being there when the play was funneled their way.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose appreciation of special teams is well-known, praised Allen for placing the ball in a difficult spot for Benjamin to return it.
“It was a great punt by Ryan, number one,” Belichick said. “He gave us a great ball, a tough ball to handle. It was loose. Benjamin ran it into the end zone, so by rule, once you run it in, you’ve got to run it out. It wasn’t the momentum of the ball that took it in there. Once he reversed his field — which Benjamin does a good job of that, he’s an excellent field returner whether he reverses field or whether they run a field return — cutting off the field and not letting him get back all the way over to the other side was key.”
The safety wasn’t the only big play the Patriots made in the kicking game Sunday. Dion Lewis had a 71-yard kick return — after a Chargers penalty forced Nick Novak to re-kick — Slater drew a holding penalty on a punt, and L.A. began eight of its 10 drives from inside its 25-yard line.
“We really feed off one another,” Slater said. “We have a lot of guys on this team that I would consider elite special teams players in my humble opinion, what little I know about it. So I would say when you have those guys going, and they’re hot, we feed off one another. There’s a lot of competition, there’s a lot of desire to make plays, and I think it makes us better.”
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed two field goals — both from 43 yards — but made four to help the Patriots put away the Chargers.
Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images
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