The New England Patriots scored a touchdown on a punt return and another off a blocked field goal in Sunday’s rout of the Los Angeles Chargers.
But the most impressive special teams play in New England’s 45-0 beatdown might have come on a Jake Bailey punt late in the third quarter.
On the play, special teams ace Justin Bethel took off from his gunner position from the Chargers’ 45-yard line, sprinted toward the end zone, located and caught Bailey’s punt feet from the goal line and deposited it in the field of play before his momentum carried him into the end zone. Teammate Cody Davis quickly arrived to down the ball at the 5-yard line.
Bethel, a two-time All-Pro and arguably the NFL’s best punt gunner, made the play look easy. But it most certainly was not.
“That?s one of the hardest plays in football,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said in a postgame video conference. “You?re running full speed, you?re having to track a ball up over your head, get the ball, throw it back before you run into the end zone.
“There are very few players in this league that can make that play. And we were laughing on the sideline, because Justin made it look like it was a routine play, almost to the point where if you?re watching it at home, you?re like, ?Oh, yeah, that?s what they do.? But for anybody who?s tried to do that, it is dang near impossible.”
Bethel also was in on three special teams tackles, including one that dropped Chargers kick returner Tyron Johnson at the 16-yard line.
“Justin never ceases to amaze me with the things he does on the football field,” Slater said. “He?s so consistent, he?s so good at his craft, and (play on the punt) was just another example of that.”
Sunday was a banner day for New England’s special teams. Gunner Olszewski had two 60-plus-yard punt returns, including a 70-yard touchdown. Davis blocked a field goal that Devin McCourty returned 44 yards for six.
Bailey, who entered the game ranked second in the NFL in net punting average, planted three of his four punts inside the 10-yard line, with Bethel, Slater and others providing expert coverage.
This came one week after the Patriots engineered two 50-plus-yard returns (one on a kickoff, one on a punt) in an upset win over the Arizona Cardinals.
“I think (Sunday) was a great example of who we felt like we were all year,” Slater said. “We have great players here, and we?re finally putting it together. So I?m pleased with the way we?ve played the last couple weeks — how could you not be? — but I?m more pleased with the buy-in and the belief of our guys. The effort, the preparation.
“When you do all those things the right way, eventually it?s going to show up in the game. We?ve been doing that the last month or so here, and thankfully, it?s starting to pay off for us.”