What’s Wrong With Patriots’ Special Teams? Bill Belichick Addresses Kick Coverage Woes

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Perhaps the most baffling aspect of the New England Patriots’ 2018 season has been their entirely uncharacteristic struggles on special teams.

Traditionally a powerhouse in the kicking game under head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots currently rank near the bottom of the league in both average kickoff return yards allowed (29th) and average punt return yards allowed (31st) through 10 games.

New England didn’t rank lower than fourth in either category in 2016 or 2017 and hasn’t placed outside the top six in opponent kick return average since 2010.

So what gives? Why is the team known for its emphasis on special teams suddenly surrendering big returns — like the 58-yarder Tennessee’s Darius Jennings had on the opening kickoff Sunday — with alarming regularity?

Belichick addressed these issues during his Tuesday morning conference call. He acknowledged the impact of the NFL’s new kickoff rules, which eliminated the running start for coverage players, but said they aren’t solely to blame for his team’s problems.

“(The new rules are) relevant, and they?ve eliminated some things that you can do on the kickoff team that we?ve done in the past,” Belichick said. “I think we?ve had our moments. At times, we?ve covered well. But as you point out, we haven?t (at times) and have probably had more breakdowns in that area than what we are used to having in previous years.

“It?s definitely an issue. It?s an area that we?ve got to continue to work in. I don?t think it?s a rule thing as much as we?ve got to coach it better. We?ve got to play better. The whole operation has to be better. We have six weeks to get it to a high level, and hopefully we?ll be able to do that.”

Jennings’ kickoff return was the Patriots’ most glaring special teams lapse in Sunday’s 34-10 loss to the Titans, but they had other, smaller ones, as well. A missed tackle allowed Adoree’ Jackson to pick up an extra 8 yards on a punt return. Matthew Slater was unable to down a Ryan Allen punt inside the 5.  Stephen Gostkowski, the AFC’s Special Teams Player of the Month in October, missed a 52-yard field goal wide right.

While special teams play often is overlooked by casual football fans, the Patriots’ struggles in these areas have had a very real effect on the team’s success this season. Need proof? Consider this stat, courtesy of Football Outsiders:

The Patriots have ranked among the top six in the NFL in average opponent starting field position every year since 2005. They ranked first in 2016 and 2017, with an average drive against their defense beginning at the 24.87- and 24.62-yard lines, respectively.

This season? Different story.

Patriots’ ranking in average opponent starting field position
2005: sixth
2006: fifth
2007: second
2008: sixth
2009: second
2010: sixth
2011: second
2012: sixth
2013: third
2014: second
2015: second
2016: first
2017: first
2018 (entering Week 10): 28th

Entering the Titans game, the Patriots ranked 28th in that category with an average of 30.27, ahead of only the Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills and nearly 6 full yards behind the league-leading Kansas City Chiefs (24.60). That ranking is likely to drop after Tennessee started three drives in New England territory and two more at its own 42.

Those five possessions yielded three touchdowns and one field goal — 24 points, equaling the Patriots’ margin of defeat.

As Belichick mentioned, it hasn’t been all bad for New England’s special teams units, which continue to employ many of the same core players from recent seasons (Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King, Jonathan Jones, Nicholas Grigsby, etc.).

They’re averaging the second-most kickoff return yards thanks to Cordarrelle Patterson, they returned a blocked punt for a touchdown last month, and Gostkowski has drilled every one of his kicks from fewer than 50 yards out this season (17-for-17 on field goals; 31-for-31 on extra points).

These coverage issues are a real problem, though — one Belichick and special teams coach Joe Judge surely will be focused on repairing during the bye week.

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