This Patriots Mismatch Could Be X-Factor In Thursday Night Rams Showdown

Don't sleep on special teams

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Last week, the New England Patriots exploited their opponent’s deficiencies in the kicking game to make life easier for their offense.

That’s a pattern they’ll look to repeat Thursday night.

The Los Angeles Rams, New England’s Week 14 opponent, boast a weapon-laden offense and one of the NFL’s top defenses, but few teams have been worse in kick/punt coverage this season.

Through 12 games, the Rams rank 30th in both yards allowed per kickoff return and yards allowed per punt return. They surrendered a 54-yard kick return last week and a 49-yarder three weeks earlier. Miami’s Jakeem Grant burned them for a 45-yard kick return and an 88-yard punt-return touchdown in Week 8.

“Clearly, there’s some things in the kicking game that we have to get better at,” Rams coach Sean McVay said earlier this week, via the team’s official website. “That’s not a secret to anybody from (last week’s game).”

The Rams are more competent on special teams than their SoFi Stadium housemates, the Chargers, but not by much. Add in their placekicking issues (Matt Gay is their third kicker this season) and their own return-game troubles (25th on kickoffs, 22nd on punts), and the Rams rank 30th in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA, which measures overall efficiency. That’s despite fielding one of the NFL’s top punters in Johnny “The Weapon” Hekker, a longtime favorite of Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

New England’s special teams rank third in DVOA, trailing only the Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens. They’ve been solid in kick/punt coverage all season — led by the elite trio of Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel and Cody Davis — and recently have become incredibly productive on returns.

AFC Special Teams Player of the Week Gunner Olszewski totaled 145 yards on three punt returns in last Sunday’s 45-0 win of the Chargers, including a 70-yard touchdown and another 61-yard runback. Devin McCourty also returned a blocked field goal 44 yards for a touchdown in that Week 13 rout.

Against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 12, Olszewski had a 58-yard punt return (downgraded from an 82-yard touchdown due to a penalty) and Donte Moncrief delivered a 50-yard kick return.

That succession of big plays, coupled with New England’s superb defense against young quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert, has helped fuel the Patriots’ current two-game winning streak by creating favorable field position for their run-heavy offense.

They’ve needed it.

The Patriots have started eight possessions inside their own 35-yard line over their last two games and scored on just one of them (their 75-yard opening drive against the Chargers). They’ve started 10 drives at or outside their 35 and gotten points on eight of them, scoring five touchdowns and three field goals.

Drives starting inside own 35, Weeks 12-13:
Interception
Punt
Punt
Interception
Touchdown
Punt
Punt
Punt

Drives starting at or outside own 35, Weeks 12-13:
Touchdown*
Field goal*
Touchdown*
Punt
Field goal
Punt
Touchdown
Touchdown*
Field goal*
Touchdown

* = drive started inside opponent territory

The Patriots’ Cam Newton-led offense isn’t built to consistently stage long drives against capable defenses. Doing so will be even more difficult this week against a Rams D that ranks in the top five in nearly every category, including fifth in points allowed, second in yards allowed and first in passing yards allowed per game and per attempt.

But with shaky special teams and a quarterback in Jared Goff who’s prone to turnovers (six interceptions and four lost fumbles in his last five games), the Rams could give the Patriots the short-field opportunities they crave.

New England Patriots wide receiver Donte Moncrief and quarterback Cam Newton
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