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The Patriots’ special teams are special (again)

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New England’s special teams continue to be one of the best in the NFL

NFL: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve ever watched a Patriots’ post-game press conference after a win, you’ve almost certainly heard Bill Belichick cite the “kicking game” as a reason for victory. Any New England fan worth their salt is aware of Belichick’s obsession with special teams. Just in case you need a reminder, check out this inventory of quotes from a recent Sports Illustrated article.

From the flawless execution of fake punts to swarming kickoff coverage, New England’s special teams units are playing at an elite level in 2017. Of course, this is no mistake. The Patriots invest heavily in their special teams year after year. Stephen Gostowski has the highest average salary of any kicker in the NFL, Joe Cardona was drafted in the fifth-round despite being solely a long snapper, and Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, and Johnson Bademosi are among the highest paid players who primarily play special teams. Belichick even famously favors left-footed punters like Ryan Allen because the ball spins in a different direction, a detail so minute that only a meticulous football sage like Belichick could devise such a devious plan.

This investment of resources into special teams continues to pay dividends. The Patriots have finished in the top ten in special teams DVOA nine times in the past ten years and are currently ranked 7th in 2017. They are the top-ranked kick coverage team in the NFL and the 2nd best kick return team, per Football Outsiders. They are one of the only NFL teams that seem committed to blocking field goals; the Patriots are tied for 1st in field goal block percentage in 2017 and rank 1st in total blocked field goals over the past five seasons. They are one of only four teams to block at least one punt and one field goal this year.

A great special teams stat is the average starting line of scrimmage following a kickoff (LOS/KO) from Football Outsiders. With a touchback now coming out to the 25-yard line, teams that can consistently induce returns and tackle the returner before the 25-yard line can gain an underrated advantage in field position. Likewise, return teams that can return the ball past the 25-yard line can also gain an advantage. Unsurprisingly, the Patriots rank highly in both return and coverage. Below is the data and NFL rankings:

Average Line of Scrimmage Following Kickoffs

Av LOS/KO Offense Av LOS/KO Defense Differential
Av LOS/KO Offense Av LOS/KO Defense Differential
27.6 23.45 4.15
1st 2nd 1st

What the above numbers are showing is that the offenses' average starting line of scrimmage following a kickoff is the 27-yard line. For the defense, it’s the 23-yard line, for a total differential of over 4 yards. To put the differential in perspective, the next closest team is Oakland at +2.68. New England and Oakland are the only teams with a differential over 2 yards, and the Patriots nearly double the Raiders.

That’s a huge advantage in field position, especially for the defense. While the Patriots have improved at keeping teams off the scoreboard, they still rank dead last in yards per drive and 26th in 3-and-outs per drive, per Football Outsiders. For a defense that is susceptible to giving up yards, field position is vitally important.

Year after year, it seems like a given that the Patriots will win the AFC East and play in the AFC championship game. That sort of consistency isn’t a fluke. Obviously, it helps to have Tom Brady as your quarterback, but Bill Belichick’s commitment to special teams continues to be one of the most underappreciated aspects of New England’s success.