So Far, Patriots Haven’t Made Needed Special Teams Improvement

In fact, they might be worse than they were in 2021

by

September 28

Statistically, the Patriots in 2021 had their worst season on special teams in the Bill Belichick era. Normally one of the best units in the NFL, New England’s special teams group was atypically sloppy across the board.

The unit ranked 18th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, which basically functions as football’s version of baseball’s wins-above-replacement (WAR) stat. The poor grade marked the worst DVOA showing for Patriots special teams since Belichick took over as New England’s head coach in 2000. In the previous 21 seasons, New England never finished lower than 16th (three times) and finished in the top 10 a whopping 16 times, including first overall in 2020 — Cam Achord’s first campaign as special teams coordinator.

Normally, special teams aren’t worth talking about. The Patriots over the years were so good that their excellence on special teams didn’t really matter. It was more of an additional talking point to bring up when discussing Belichick’s detail-oriented greatness as a head coach. Any gripes over Belichick devoting significant money and using roster spots on special-teams only players were futile in the face of New England sustaining the greatest dynasty in professional sports history.

But these are different times. The Patriots are an average-at-best team, more susceptible to their games being won and lost on the margins. Field position, field goals, kick/punt coverage and special teams turnovers absolutely make a difference in a post-Tom Brady world.

However, there was reason to believe Belichick and Achord would clean things up this season. After all, Belichick is Belichick, and Achord was at the helm in 2020 when Patriots special teams finished first in DVOA. Plus, Matthew Slater still is around, Nick Folk is rock-solid on field goals and Jake Bailey, one of the highest-paid punters in football, is healthy again after an uncharacteristically down season in 2021. Moreover, while Belichick finally trimmed some of New England’s special teams salary fat. Brandon King left in free agency and Justin Bethel was released before roster cutdowns, but Belichick still filled 53-man roster spots with special teams-first players, including rookie UDFAs Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell.

So, have things improved?

Nope. In fact, through three games, they actually have gotten worse.

Entering Week 4, the Patriots rank 26th in special teams DVOA. The Baltimore Ravens currently hold the No. 1 spot.

And there have been myriad issues. First-time punt returner Myles Bryant muffed punts in consecutive games, though he recovered both. In Weeks 2 and 3, a rookie kickoff returner fielded a kick in the end zone and eventually was tackled before the 25-yard line. Bailey, who currently has the lowest punt yard average and lowest net punt yard average (neither entirely his fault), punted two balls into the end zone against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Folk missed a field goal in that game. Bryant ranks 24th in the NFL in average punt return yards (6.6). New England allowed dynamic Ravens returner Devin Duvernay to return a punt 43 yards in the third quarter — though you could argue Slater was held. The Patriots do rank fifth in average kick return yards (26.3), but that number is slightly inflated by Kyle Dugger’s 37-yard return in Week 2.

No matter how you slice it, the Patriots haven’t been good enough on special teams, and they’re fortunate the struggles haven’t cost them a game. The result in Pittsburgh could’ve been completely different had Bryant not recovered his muffed punt in the end zone. If you want to be especially negative, you could argue that the only reason New England isn’t 0-3 is Bryant recovered his muffed punt in Pittsburgh whereas old friend Gunner Olszewski didn’t fall on his.

Still, Achord isn’t interested in comparing this season’s group to last year’s or focusing on specific bad plays. He just wants the players to get better every week.

“You don’t really look back; you just look at where you are,” Achord said Tuesday. “I tell the guys, ‘Were we better this game than last game?’ or, ‘Are we continuing to get better in every phase?’ And that’s the big point for our guys. As long we’re getting better, we’re gonna be playing our best ball at the end of the year. … I’d say right now, they’re doing everything I’m asking of them.”

Slater, New England’s special teams captain, is optimistic about the group’s performance.

“It’s certainly been encouraging at times,” he said Monday. “We’ve gotten some good contributions from a lot of guys. Some young guys that are really doing some good things for us. And, I think now it’s all about consistency. … I’m really excited about the group of players that we have, the buy-in that we have. The physicality with which we’ve been playing has been really encouraging, the urgency’s been really encouraging.”

In a vacuum, it doesn’t matter what a team’s DVOA stat is in a certain phase. The teams ranked Nos. 2 through 5 in special teams — Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys, Carolina panthers — all are middling. And the same can be said for the top five teams in rushing offense DVOA: Patriots, Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings, Cowboys, Detroit Lions.

But the Patriots care about special teams more than most other teams, and they made a point during the summer to correct last season’s failures. So far, the results haven’t been there.

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Thumbnail photo via Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports Images
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