Against the Kansas City Chiefs in week six, the New England Patriots’ special teams stood out only for the wrong reasons. Early on during Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears, it appeared as if the unit was in for more of the same: kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson fumbled a runback late in the first quarter that was recovered by the home team and turned into a touchdown just five plays later.
However, redemption was on the menu for the New England kicking game group this week – and it started with Patterson: early in the second period, the first-year Patriot made up for his blunder by running back a kickoff 95 yards for a score. The unit was not done, though, as it also found the end zone in the third quarter thanks to a Dont’a Hightower punt block that was picked up by Kyle Van Noy an run back for six.
Let’s take a closer look at the two plays and see what went right for New England.
(11:05) C.Parkey kicks 60 yards from CHI 35 to NE 5. C.Patterson for 95 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Chicago went up 17-7 in the early second quarter, but the two-possession advantage would not last long thanks to Cordarrelle Patterson’s first return touchdown in a Patriots uniform. The play started like all kickoffs do under the modified rules: the Bears have 10 players on the line before the actual kick, with New England’s blocking set up in an even 6-2-2 alignment with Patterson (#84) the lone deep man.
Bears kicker Cody Parkey (#1) places the kickoff well as the returnman has to move to the side and field it at the 5-yard line. When Patterson catches the ball and starts to run with it, the front-line players are already in the process of setting up their initial blocking. At this point, the returner has about 20 yards of opponent-free grass in front of him to pick up speed:
As Patterson advances the football, the blockers up front do an excellent job when it comes to diagnosis and execution. The front-eight are either all engaged or in a position to take away a free defender. Meanwhile, wedge blockers James Develin (#46) and Kenjon Barner (#38) identify their men quickly to seal off the offensive left side. On the other side, meanwhile, J.C. Jackson (#27) and Brandon King (#36) win their one-on-one battles.
This, in turn, creates a lane for Patterson and the veteran has the vision to see it quickly and take advantage of it:
At that point and with the momentum on his side again a free rushing DeAndre Houston-Carson (#36), all Patterson has to do is get by the aforementioned Parkey and rookie Kevin Toliver II (#22). With the latter approaching too quickly, the ball carrier is able to make a quick cut to the inside to avoid the tackle. And while Parkey tries not to go down without a fight, he too has to watch Patterson ride off into the proverbial sunset:
The play itself is a perfect combination of well-executed blocking up front and a returner quickly identifying his lanes and showing off his athleticism. A perfect special teams storm, if you will – and one that will catch the attention of coaches around the league and likely affect their decision making when it comes to kicking off towards Patterson.
4-8-CHI 45 (6:05) P.O’Donnell punt is BLOCKED by D.Hightower, Center-P.Scales, RECOVERED by NE-K.Van Noy at CHI 29. K.Van Noy for 29 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
With the game tied at 24 midway through the third period, New England’s return squad made another big play. This time, it came on a punt return that the Patriots approached with eight rushers in the box: six men challenge the pocket with their hand in the dirt, two more – Nate Ebner (#48) and Matthew Slater (#18) – attack from the second level:
As they would on any other punt, the Bears employ a seven-man pocket with personal protector Benny Cunningham (#30) offset behind it. Cunningham being shaded to the offensive left side indicates that long snapper Patrick Scales (#48) would block to the right. Either way, New England’s rushers will mostly face one-on-one blocking across the board. Enter Dont’a Hightower (#54).
Aligning as a 7-technique defender in between Danny Shelton (#71; 3-technique) and fellow linebacker Kyle Van Noy (#53; 9-technique), Hightower was pretty much guaranteed a one-on-one block going against Ben Braunecker (#84) – a mismatch that favors New England’s defensive signal caller. At the snap, this is exactly what happens as the tight end is the only player between Hightower and the punter:
With the aforementioned Slater stunting around towards the outside of the formation, Joel Iyiegbuniwe (#45) is left without an assignment. Instead of turning to his right and helping Braunecker block Hightower, though, the rookie moves to the inside and aids Scales against the bigger Shelton. This in turn, allows New England’s star linebacker to simply bull-rush through the overmatched blocker’s outside shoulder to get to punter Pat O’Donnell (#16)
After simply tossing Braunecker aside, Hightower has a free shot at blocking the kick – which he does. With Van Noy also in the backfield at that point, New England has two players in prime position to recover the fumble. Van Noy actually ends up with the loose football and returns it to the end zone. During the runback, his teammates do a good job to not risk any penalties but still block any opposition to the linebacker.
While New England does not always use some of its best pass rushers against the punt, the team – as was the case on the kickoff return – executed perfectly. Sunday’s game was therefore certainly a step in the right direction for all units.