In some sense, personal punt protectors are like long snappers, or even catalytic converters.
You don’t normally hear about them unless something goes wrong. Which, in the New England Patriots’ case against the Miami Dolphins last week, something did.
Right at the same time it went right.
Nate Ebner fielded the direct snap from Joe Cardona on New England’s opening drive of that game. And from there, the 2016 second-team All-Pro rushed up the right sideline before being flung off the turf and out of bounds along with the football.
The fourth-and-8 fake netted 14 yards and a conversion for the Patriots, and it was Ebner’s check on the Dolphins’ alignment that made it so. But that check, initiated by a subtle point to his Riddell Revo Speed helmet, came at the cost of New England’s core special-teamer for the rest of the season.
And in came Jordan Richards.
It was Richards, a fellow reserve safety, who replaced the injured Ebner as punter Ryan Allen’s last line of defense versus Miami. It was a responsibility the 2015 second-round pick out of Stanford retained on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills as well.
It was recent territory for him, as Bill Belichick noted Monday on WEEI’s Dale & Holley with Rich Keefe.
“If you remember, Nate missed the first couple games of the year and Jordan did that as well in those games, too,” said the Patriots head coach. “And in a couple at the end of the preseason – Detroit and, I want to say, the Giants game.”
Like those previous fill-ins, Richards’ name wasn’t called much by the time New England had a 35-17 win in at Gillette Stadium over Miami. Nor was it called much in the 23-3 win at New Era Field over Buffalo. That wasn’t a bad thing; it meant that Richards kept things from going bad.
“Jordan’s done a good job for us in multiple roles,” Belichick added of the third-year pro. “But that one is one that he’s filled in this year for four or five games, including preseason.”
There were no unaccounted-for rushers charged to No. 37 versus the Dolphins or Bills. There were no blocked punts, bobbled snaps, or field-shifting returns, either. Outcomes like that can make personal punt protector a relatively anonymous job. But it is a job that can be graded pass or fail. And that, in and of itself, can make it a high-leverage one.
Plenty of layers await fourth down.
“It’s a tough spot. Yeah, It’s a tough spot,” Belichick said. “There’s a lot of things that can happen, a lot of variables, a lot of different looks and a lot of situations that can come up in the punting game. In addition to the looks, just the time, score, field position, wind, etcetera. It’s not easy.”
The 24-year-old Richards is a viable second option for the not-easy. He’s worked throughout the kicking game, as well as at defensive back, and more extensively, hybrid linebacker in sub-package sets this season. And through 12 games, the safety-in-title has seen action in each while starting five contests and recording 185 snaps on defense and 213 on special teams.
Richards has notched a forced fumble, a pass deflection and 20 tackles along the way. And moving forward, he’s first in line for a duty that goes on without much of an existence – on a good day.
It takes a full diagnostic check to make for one. Ebner knows. So does Patrick Chung and those before him.
“Those guys I’ve coached that have played that position through the years have always spent a lot of time in understanding all the things that are involved and done a good job with it,” Belichick continued. “But that’s what it is.”