During the first 18 seasons of Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach of the New England Patriots, the team blocked only two punts during the regular season or playoffs with none of them being turned into a touchdown. Over the last two years, however, the Patriots have found more success attacking the punter: not only were three punts blocked by the team since the 2018 season, it also was able to score on two of them.
The latest touchdown came on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, when cornerback J.C. Jackson blitzed off the edge to get in front of punter Corey Bojorquez. Jackson got his hands on the football, it popped up into the air, and ultimately ended up in the arms of team captain Matthew Slater who returned it 11 yards into the end zone — his first career touchdown and one that put the Patriots up 13-0 against their division rivals.
On Monday, Belichick was asked about the play during a conference call and he dug deep into the topic of blocking punts in the NFL. As with all things the Patriots do, it all starts in practice: “We practice that every week. Blocking a punt’s a drill that I’ve done every year [and] I’ve been in coaching for 45 years. Every week we practice it. All of the guys on the punt return team practice it because you never know which guy is going to come free.”
The Patriots work on punt blocking drills every week may seem like a lot, but it is actually not a surprise. The team is known for its fundamentals-first approach, after all, and the kicking game is no exception. Recently, this has helped New England block three punts: Dont’a Hightower and Albert McClellan were successful last year, with Jackson being able to get into the backfield against Buffalo as well.
“You might think they’re going to block it a certain way, but the guy makes a mistake,” continued Belichick. “So we start those back in the spring and go through training camp and we have our fundamental rules about what the aiming point is depending on where you’re located on the rush and where your aiming point is. That, of course, varies from team-to-team based on the punter’s walk-off and which foot he punts with, and so forth.”
“But once you identify where the block point is, then you take the proper aiming point there so that your aiming point and your path intersect the ball, but doesn’t intersect the kicker’s path,” he added. “So you can’t run right at the kicker and miss the ball and run into the kicker. You run at a point that enables you to miss the kicker, whether you get the ball or not, so that you don’t have the roughing the kicker penalty that you’re referring to.”
Jackson did this perfectly on Sunday against Buffalo: he was able to get into the backfield unobstructed to aim not directly at Corey Bojorquez but instead his launch point. The ball did therefore not move forward after impact; it popped up in the air and was scooped up by Slater around 10 yards behind where the Bills’ punter was supposed to kick the football. With all of the Patriots’ players facing this direction, a New England recovery and score were the natural result.
“It’s absolutely something we practice, and those are the kind of things, as I said, from week-to-week are a little bit different because each punter’s launch point is a little bit different,” continued Belichick when speaking about the preparation behind the punt block. “It could be anywhere from nine yards, nine-and-a-half yards, to ten, maybe ten-and-a-half on a guy with a shorter... either one less step, or a little shorter stride, but it’s in that range somewhere, generally speaking.”
“Once you get to the spot, then you have to have the proper technique of hitting the ball with your hands as it comes off his foot, and then reacting after the punt’s blocked. Making the decision there, if it crossed the line of scrimmage or not, or whether to fall on it or pick it up and so forth and so on,” added Belichick. “It was a great play by J.C., and Matt Slater was really close on another one. Similar type of play, he was just coming from one spot further in.”
“We almost had that one,” said Belichick in reference to a Buffalo punt in the third quarter that sailed just 21 yards. “That one, I think it looked like Corey might have seen him coming and I think that’s the one he hooked it out-of-bounds. It only went 20 yards or something like that. So if he had punted that one with his normal stride, Matt might have had that one. But yeah, it’s something we absolutely work on every week, 100%.”