Gunner Olszewski took over punt-returning duties from Julian Edelman in the New England Patriots’ 2019 season opener, and if he continues to perform the way he did Sunday night, he won’t be giving them back any time soon.
The undrafted rookie out of Bemidji State registered a pair of impressive runbacks during New England’s 33-3 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers, returning one punt for 20 yards and another for 15 in the win.
“I thought Gunner did a good job getting the ball upfield on punt returns,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on a conference call Monday morning. “J.C. Jackson did a real nice job on the gunners and kind of helped get us started there. If we could just finish a couple more blocks, there may be a couple more yards to be had there. …
“Lawrence (Guy), Adam Butler, (Dont’a) Hightower, Jamie (Collins) — those guys really did a good job of getting guys held up at the line of scrimmage so Gunner could get started, and he had some positive yardage that helped our offensive field position in the return game. Still plenty of room for improvement, but I thought we did some positive things (Sunday) night.”
The question now is whether Olszewski, who initially was informed of his release on cutdown day before the Patriots ultimately opted to keep on him their 53-man roster, still will be on that roster in Week 2. New England must cut one player to make room for newly signed receiver Antonio Brown, and Olszewski, who likely won’t contribute much offensively this season, is one obvious candidate.
The Division II product has made a strong case for keeping his spot, however, earning the respect of coaches and teammates with his fearless, borderline-reckless playing style.
“Gunner is making great plays in punt (returns),” Edelman, who reluctantly ceded returning duties to Olszewski, told reporters after Sunday’s game.
The Patriots’ special teams performed well overall against the Steelers. The new battery of long snapper Joe Cardona, punter/holder Jake Bailey and kicker Stephen Gostkowski worked seamlessly after some preseason hiccups, with Gostkowski going 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts and nailing all three of his extra points.
“I thought our field goal operation was good,” Belichick said. “Pittsburgh is a good rush team; they challenged us with their field goal rush. So to be able to hold up on that, both punt and field goal protection was a key part of the game for us. I thought Stephen hit the ball well — the kickoffs, the field goals, the extra points.
“The operation — Joe, Jake, Steve — was good. The first punt that Jake hit was a great punt — one of the very best you could hit: 50-something yards, on the sideline, out of bounds, no return. It’s hard to do any better than that. But the other ones were good, too.”
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images