How Three Special Teams ‘Game-Changers’ Helped Patriots Blow Out Broncos

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Two weeks ago, the New England Patriots forced a safety on a punt return, had a 71-yard kickoff return and smothered the Los Angeles Chargers in kick coverage.

They one-upped themselves Sunday night.

Facing a Denver Broncos team that had lost four straight, the Patriots delivered their best special teams performance yet in a resounding 41-16 victory at Sports Authority Field.

“We had a great week of preparation,” running back Rex Burkhead said in a postgame interview with NBC’s Michele Tafoya. “Joe Judge, our special teams coordinator, did a great job of preparing us for this week and came up with a great game plan. And I think as a unit, we played really well.”

A quick rundown of New England’s accomplishments in the kicking game:

1. After the Patriots went three-and-out to open the game, Broncos return man Isaiah McKenzie muffed Ryan Allen’s punt, and rookie tight end Jacob Hollister pounced on the loose ball. New England went on to score a touchdown two plays later, with Burkhead catching a slant from Tom Brady and taking it 14 yards to paydirt.

Jonathan Jones, who’s excelled on special teams since he joined the Patriots last season, provided the pressure on McKenzie.

“We knew McKenzie had muffed a couple,” safety Devin McCourty told reporters after the game. “And we talked about, for the gunners, just getting there and trying to make it tough, and Ryan always does a good job punting the ball for us.”

2. After the Broncos settled for a field goal on their first possession, Brandon McManus kicked off to Dion Lewis. Lewis fielded the kick 3 yards deep in his end zone, identified a seam in Denver’s coverage and took off.

With Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister and Jordan Richards delivering key blocks, Lewis wasn’t touched until he reached the 35-yard line, when McManus tried and failed to bring him down.

Devontae Booker caught up to the speedy back at the Broncos’ 35, but his attempt to shove Lewis down from behind only wound up providing him the boost he needed to race into the end zone for a 103-yard touchdown.

3. With the Patriots leading 17-6 early in the second quarter, Burkhead — a special teams standout in Cincinnati before signing with the Patriots this spring — muscled his way past safety Jamal Carter to block a Riley Dixon punt.

It was the Patriots’ first blocked punt since 2014, and it set up a Stephen Gostkowski field goal.

“We know the caliber of specialists,” Brady told reporters. “They don’t get an opportunity very often. They only got one opportunity (Sunday night) — D-Lew did and took it to the house. And then the blocked punt was great. It set us up for some great field position. Those were two huge plays. It makes them really defend those things, and hopefully that can set up other things down the road.”

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski called the aforementioned plays “game-changers.”

“It’s super nice,” Gronkowski told reporters. “Whenever you have a special teams play like that — a couple: took a kickoff to the house, the punt block — it’s huge. It helps out the whole team, defensively and offensively.”

The Patriots are known for rostering an unusually high number of players who contribute only on special teams, but Lewis and Burkhead both had strong nights offensively, as well. Burkhead opened the scoring with his touchdown reception, and Lewis ran one in from 8 yards out late in the third quarter to effectively put the game out of reach.

The Broncos also did themselves no favors on special teams. They had 12 players on the field on fourth down during the fourth quarter, extending a Patriots drive that culminated in the game’s final touchdown.

Thumbnail photo via Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports Images

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