The New England Patriots are running some tests on special teams star Nate Ebner, but the initial prognosis is not good. Ebner left Sunday’s game with a knee injury after converting a first down on a fake punt, and now that injury is considered to be potentially season-ending.
While we hope that Ebner is okay and has a speedy recovery, the Patriots needed to find ways to cobble together a replacement plan for one of their core special teams players. Much like how Rob Gronkowski can’t be replaced one-for-one in the offense, Ebner has so many responsibilities on special teams that it took three players to take on his collective role.
Even head coach Bill Belichick highlighted the importance of Ebner’s loss after the game.
“We obviously practice our backups to each position, but when multiple players are injured and particularly when it’s on one play then it creates a little bit of a scramble,” Belichick explained. “But even a bigger problem is in the kicking game because you have six units on special teams. You have kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return, field goal, field goal block, so when you lose a player there, like when Nate [Ebner] went down, you lose a guy that’s on five of those six teams and it’s not always the same guy replacing him.
“So it could be this guy on this team, that guy on another team and so forth and then you add a couple of guys in, so that’s challenging. For the coaches and the players, that’s part of football, unfortunately. We have to practice those situations and everybody needs to know who’s behind who.”
Ebner plays every special teams unit other than the field goal unit, where the Patriots play mostly offensive and defensive linemen to give Stephen Gostkowski as much space as possible, so let’s take a look at what Ebner does and which players stepped up to replace him.
Nate Ebner is usually to the immediate right of the kicker; some call this the R1 or the R5, depending on how they feel like counting towards or away from the kicker.
After Ebner was injured, the Patriots appeared to use Jonathan Jones in that role, using his speed to pierce the Miami Dolphins blocks up the middle.
Ebner aligns on the edge of the formation for kick returns and uses his speed to stick with the kickoff coverage players. Jacob Hollister had been aligning on the opposite edge of Ebner in recent weeks, but took on Ebner’s place next to Trevor Reilly, with Marquis Flowers seeing more time on kickoff return front line.
Ebner is the punt protector where he helps set the protection and ensures every coverage player is blocked. This used to be Patrick Chung’s job in his first go-round in New England and this player is able to call a fake if they see a favorable scenario.
Jordan Richards stepped in as the protector once Ebner was injured.
Nate Ebner is one of the second level players in the punt return unit and they help the Patriots to either rush the punter or drop back and provide extra blocking for the returnman.
Once Ebner was injured, the Patriots added Marquis Flowers to the second level, but they also moved Jordan Richards to the heart and put Kyle Van Noy on the edge in Richard’s old role, showing how much of a domino effect one injury can have on a special teams unit.
The Patriots preferred to have Richards in the middle of the punt return unit to call the plays once Ebner was out, so that resulted in a few other moving pieces.
Field goal blocks
Ebner lines up on the inside of Jonathan Jones with the hope that either one can put enough pressure on the outside blocker that the other will be free to block the kick. The Patriots decided to put Jordan Richards in Ebner’s spot inside of Jones.
So the Patriots used Jonathan Jones on kickoffs; Marquis Flowers on punt returns and kick returns; Jacob Hollister on kick returns; Jordan Richards on punts, punt returns, field goal blocks; and even Kyle Van Noy on punt returns. But it was mostly Jones, Flowers, and Richards that stepped into greater roles.
We wish Ebner a speedy recovery with his injury.