Kickers in high altitude games receive some help from the thin air to get some extra distance on their kicks. New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski will use all the help he can get against the Oakland Raiders to make sure his kickoffs don’t land in the hands of the Oakland Raiders returnmen.
The Patriots used their advantage on special teams to take down the Denver Broncos one week ago, so this oft forgotten facet of the game deserves special attention- especially when both the Patriots and Raiders are pretty good at it.
The Raiders are coached by former Patriots special teams coordinator Brad Seely and while Oakland doesn’t dedicate as many resources to their special teams as the Patriots do, they certainly aren’t without quality players.
“They have a very explosive group of specialists – punter, kicker, returners, punt returner, kickoff returner,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about the Raiders. “Those guys can change field position. They can make big plays. So, it’s a very explosive group. Brad does a great job with them, no question. He’s an outstanding coach. “
There are five main categories of special teams plays. There are 1) field goals and extra points; 2) kickoffs; 3) kick coverage; 4) punts; and 5) punt coverage, and Belichick has taken special attention to two of the Raiders’ facets.
“[Punter Marquette] King can change field position, and of course they’re very explosive with the two returners with [Jalen] Richard and [Cordarrelle] Patterson. Those guys are very dynamic players,” Belichick explained.
According to Football Outsiders, the Raiders rank 4th in the NFL in kick returns, led by Cordarrelle Patterson as the primary returnman, and 5th in punts. Oakland is average on kickoffs and field goals and an ugly 30th on punt returns.
For comparison, the Patriots lead the league in value added from kickoffs and kick return and are roughly average on field goals and extra points, punts, and punt returns.
While there’s little the Patriots can do to eliminate King as a “threat” for the Raiders to flip the field, the Patriots can definitely do their part to eliminate Patterson.
The average Patterson return has gone to the 28-yard line and 7 of his 13 returns have gone for 30 or more yards. His average return of 30.9 yards leads the NFL for any kick returner with 6 or more attempts (Patriots running back Dion Lewis ranks second at 30.8, thanks to his touchdown return).
There is a valid argument that the Patriots should fight strength against strength with New England’s elite kick coverage unit, and perhaps the altitude would allow Gostkowski to get more hang time and allow for better coverage by the kickoff unit. That would certainly be in line with what the Patriots have been doing all season, as Belichick noted.
“Steve...[has] given us a lot of good kicks, a lot of great kicks to work with,” Belichick said about Gostkowski. “Several of our touchbacks have been on balls that were a yard or two deep in the end zone whereas a lot of times you see those returned, but the aggressiveness of the team is probably a factor there.”
The Patriots have intentionally tried to pin the ball one or two yards into the end zone all season. That depth forces the returnman to waste a precious millisecond debating whether it’s worth returning the kick at all, and allows the coverage unit to get into place.
Perhaps there’s a middle ground where Gostkowski can kick it three or four yards into the end zone to test if Patterson is willing to be aggressive enough on the return, but those echo the famous last words of coaches that thought kicking to Devin Hester was a good idea.
Patterson leads the NFL over the past five seasons with 30.5 yards per kick return and a ridiculous five (5!!) kick return touchdowns. He ranks first in NFL history in yards per kick return by those with 100 or more attempts.
Sometimes the best way to win is simply to never play at all. Don’t give Patterson a chance to flip the field. Kick the ball through the end zone and let the Raiders start every drive from the 25-yard line. It’s just the smart decision.