FOXBORO, Mass. — There’s a reason Jerry Jones dedicated a sizable portion of his latest postgame media scrum to bashing his own club’s special teams.
The Dallas Cowboys were downright miserable in the kicking game Sunday evening, and that gave the New England Patriots the advantage they needed in a 13-9 rock fight at Gillette Stadium.
Seven-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater set up the game’s lone touchdown — a 10-yarder to rookie receiver N’Keal Harry late in the first quarter — by blocking a Chris Jones punt, giving New England possession at the Dallas 12-yard line.
“(That was) probably the difference in the game, really, when you come right down to it,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “I thought that (special teams coaches) Joe Judge and Cam (Achord), we had a real aggressive approach in the kicking game today. We were trying to challenge the ball-handling, and I thought we did a good job of that. Forced some tough catches with their specialists, and the blocked punt obviously was a huge field-position play. It enabled us to play from ahead, and that was a good thing.”
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) November 24, 2019
Slater said the Patriots had identified a weakness in the Cowboys’ punt operation they believed they could exploit. On the block, they overloaded the defensive right side, with Slater, Brandon Bolden, Shilique Calhoun and Jonathan Jones rushing against four blockers.
Bolden occupied long snapper L.P. Ladouceur, creating a hole for Nate Ebner to rush through. That forced personal protector Jeff Heath to step down to block Ebner, leaving the area in front of Jones exposed. Slater pushed through a lackluster block by linebacker Joe Thomas and swatted the ball with his right hand as it left the punter’s foot.
“We had a look that we felt good about all week,” Slater explained. “We really worked hard on that. The way the game turned out, we didn’t think we’d have a lot of chances to return the football, so we wanted to keep the pressure on them. I think across the board, the execution was great. Shilique had a good get-off inside of me, Jon had a good get-off outside of me, and it just allowed me to get a 1-on-1 matchup. And thankfully, were able to take advantage of it.”
It was the Patriots’ third blocked punt of the season and the second Slater was involved in. He also returned a blocked punt for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown during a 16-10 win over the Buffalo Bills in Week 4.
“I think as the play was developing, I said to myself, ‘I might have a chance here,'” Slater said. “Then I kept going and I was like, ‘Oh, I might really have a chance here.’ And then you never know when you get to the block point. Any number of things can happen. So, fortunately, I was able to get my hand on it, and that play was a play we took advantage of and scored offensively the following series.”
The Cowboys also looked generally unprepared on kickoff returns, muffing two kicks and allowing another to drop. The Patriots repeatedly employed shorter pooch kicks to combat the driving wind and heavy rains that pounded players for the duration of Sunday’s game, and Dallas never adapted, sparking harsh criticism from both Jerry Jones and former Cowboys quarterback-turned-FOX analyst Troy Aikman.
“That’s poor coaching,” Aikman said on the broadcast after Tony Pollard scrambled to recover Jake Bailey’s final kickoff of the game. “That’s coaching. Nobody’s telling Tony Pollard (to) get up. Every kick into the wind has been short.”
Even with Nick Folk’s two missed field goals and Bailey’s punting problems — the reigning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week had three touchbacks before pinning the Cowboys at their own 8 with less than three minutes remaining — the Patriots’ edge in the kicking game was both obvious and significant.
“To me, special teams is 100 percent coaching,” said Jones, the Cowboys’ outspoken team owner. “It’s 100 percent coaching. … That’s why today, Belichick, give him credit. They did a great job on special teams, and that was probably the determining difference.”