Heading into Super Bowl 53, most of the focus is on the battle between offense and defense. Will the New England Patriots be able to move the football against a star-strudded Los Angeles Rams unit? And will offensive coaching wunderkind Sean McVay be able to crack the riddle that Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ defense will present? The game-deciding play, however, may very happen in the oft-forgotten third phase: special teams.
After a slow start into the season, New England’s kicking game units have performed well as of late — in part thanks to the in-season additions of Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber. The Rams have been solid all through the season, meanwhile, as Belichick made sure to point out during his press conference on Thursday. “Every kicking play is an explosive play potentially for the Rams,” said New England’s head coach.
Statistically speaking, L.A. finds itself in a similar area than the Patriots when it comes to special teams performance. The team ranks 17th according to the DVOA statistic published by Football Outsiders, coming in one spot behind New England. The special teams rankings by veteran analyst Rick Gosselin of Football Maven have the Rams at ninth, one slot ahead of the Patriots this time.
For Belichick, it all starts with Los Angeles’ kickers: punter Johnny Hekker and place kicker Greg Zuerlein. “The kickers have big legs,” the Patriots’ coach said. “Obviously, Zuerlein’s field goals were the difference in the championship game. Hekker’s a tremendous player, a great athlete. He’s a weapon. They block kicks, they return kicks and they have a fast coverage team that can change field position.”
In general, field position will be a key when it comes to winning the Super Bowl. During the regular season, this is something Los Angeles performed well at: the team started its average possession at the 30.4-yard line, fifth-best in the league, on offense. Defensively, L.A. began at the opponent’s 27.8, good enough for the tenth rank. And while the averages worsened a bit during the playoffs — down to 23.5 and up to 28.5, respectively — the team can still flip momentum with a single kick.
“Offensively, there’s a lot of backed up situations based on their kicking game where they put you on a long field,” said the Patriots’ head coach about the punting of Johnny Hekker, arguably the NFL’s premier player at his position and one Belichick apparently admires. “He’s a weapon on the field. He can change field position and he’s a good situational punter and obviously he’s very athletic.”
“You have to respect his ability to handle the ball,” continued Belichick when talking about Hekker’s 20 career passing attempts, 12 of which were completed for a combined 168 yards and a touchdown — as well as 11 first downs. “I think the main thing when you send your punt return team out there is you want to make sure you get the ball at the end of the play. That’s not always that difficult but with these guys it’s pretty challenging.”
In a game that the oddsmakers and statisticians expect to be a close one, a single play in the kicking game might turn out to be the difference — and the Rams are well equipped in this area. “They’re all weapons. Zuerlein’s a weapon, Hekker’s a weapon,” said Belichick about Los Angeles’ special teamers. “They do a good job in the return game.”