The New England Patriots currently rank 1st in the NFL in limiting the starting field position from kick offs as opposing teams start their average drive on the 21 yard line. The average opposing kick return is a mere 16.5 yards, the 2nd best mark in the league, and that includes the two fumbles force by the Patriots against the Texans.
Special teams captain Matthew Slater thinks the special teams coverage unit is a special group.
“I think about the units I’ve been a part of and I’d say this is the fastest unit that I’ve ever played on across the board,” Slater said. “We’ve been able to use that to our advantage by, as you’ve seen, not kicking touchbacks every time and letting our speed guys play fast and get down the field and not giving these offenses extra yards to get out there and line up with.
“I think it’s starts with Coach [Bill Belichick] and [special teams coach] Joe Judge and [assistant special teams coach] Ray Ventrone. The idea, and the way they envisioned things coming into the season, and the attention to details from all the guys has been great. We’ve been able to go out and execute and hopefully we can continue that trend as we move forward.”
It’s clear that the Patriots have been focused on the coverage unit this year and the results have been spectacular. Outside of the final kick off against the Bengals, where the Patriots were penalized 15 yards after RB LeGarrette Blount’s penalty, teams have struggled to bring the ball back to the 25-yard line, where they would start if they accepted a touchback.
Slater says the decision to kick a touchback “depends on the situation and the time and place in the game,” with 14 returnable kicks and 16 touchbacks on the season.
The Patriots have kicked a touchback on four of the five attempts when the score is tied or the Patriots are trailing. The Patriots have also decided to kick touchbacks right before halftime, while four of the Patriots six kick offs determined by the coin toss (start of the game, or after the half) have been touchbacks. These decisions are likely to avoid giving the opposition a possible spark.
It’s difficult to find another consistent scenario. The Patriots don’t favor a kick off or a touchback when looking at specific scoring margin or time left in the quarter, half or game. The Patriots are more likely to kick a returnable ball with a one-score lead (7 of 10 returnable) and a three-score lead (5 of 7), but that could also be due to a small sample size.
However the Patriots decide to kick a touchback or a returnable ball, the Patriots kick off coverage unit has been the best in the league.