While the 2018-2019 New England Patriots ended their season by hoisting a sixth Lombardi Trophy, their season was not without some peaks and valleys. An early stretch in Weeks 2 and 3 saw them drop consecutive road games to Jacksonville and Detroit, two teams that would fail to make the playoffs. Obviously there were late season stumbles as well, specifically losses at Miami and Pittsburgh. Oh, and that whole...Tennessee thing. Yet perhaps no game more encapsulated their season than their road victory over the Chicago Bears in Week 7.
This was a game that came up a yard short of being perhaps tied by the Bears on a game-ending Hail Mary attempt. Or alternatively, a yard short from setting up a do-or-die two point conversion try the home team. This was after the Patriots staked themselves to a 14-point lead halfway through the fourth quarter. But prior to all of that, starting late in the first quarter, New England was forced to endure one of the season’s most bizarre set of circumstances.
After Bears’ kicker Cody Parkey converted a 46-yard field goal with 3:55 left in the first quarter, he teed up the football for the ensuing kickoff. That was fielded by Cordarrelle Patterson, who coughed up the ball on a tackle from Nick Kwiatkoski. Bears’ safety DeAndre Houston-Carson recovered the loose ball, gifting Chicago great field position. They would cap off a short drive with an eight-yard touchdown run from Mitchell Trubisky, although the young QB covered closer to 60 yards on the actual run, as he rolled first to his right and then all the way back across the field for the score.
Armed with a 10-7 lead, the Bears kicked off again, and the Patriots began their next possession, one which carried over to the start of the second quarter. On the first play of the next quarter, rookie running back Sony Michel was tackled awkwardly and lost the football, and the Bears again scooped up the loose ball. Now the Patriots were down a RB, and on defense again. Chicago capped off this next possession with a Jordan Howard two-yard TD run, and suddenly New England was down 17-7 on the road. Momentum (if you are a believer in that sort of thing) was all on the Bears’ sideline.
A funny thing about momentum, however, is that it can change in the blink of an eye:
Patterson redeemed his earlier fumble by taking this kickoff 95 yards to the house. How did it happen? Well, buckle up friends, because it is time to talk some special teams Xs and Os.
Let us start with the alignment. No, not of the kickoff team or the return team, but of the football:
As you can see, Parkey (#1) tees this up right in the middle of the field, between the hashmarks. For most teams this is the first part of the play call in the huddle. Kicking teams will have two directional designations called in the huddle, with one being the placement of the football, and the other being the direction of the kick. So for example, the team could call “right, kick middle” meaning the ball would be aligned on the right hashmark, and kicked to the middle of the field. Here, the call is for the Bears to align this in the middle.
Now, let’s look at where Patterson (#84) fields the football:
As you can see, Patterson catches this near the left (from the return team’s point of view) numbers. Meaning Parkey kicks this to his right. Thus, the call was likely “right, kick right” in the huddle.
Returning to the pre-kick alignment, we can talk about player designations. Teams number the kick coverage players differently. Some number them 1 through 10 across the formation, but most use some sort of R# or L# designation. The most common designation is R1 through R5 on the right side of the kick team, working from the outside in, and L1 through L5 on the left side, working from the outside in:
Using the most common naming convention, the players on the outside (R1 and L1) are generally your safety players. They will work towards the returner and usually “fold and stack” the returner, meaning they will work behind the main wave of coverage players and try to mirror the return man. The players just inside of them, the R2 and L2 players, are the contain player who will endeavor to keep the ball carrier funneled to the inside, and the rest of the help:
On a play such as this, with the football kicked away from him, L1 Kevin Toliver II (#22) will fold and stack behind the wave, covering a great deal of distance. There is also a spacing issue to note along the left side. Look at the gap between the L1 and L2 players. It is bigger than the rest. Spacing along the kickoff team should be uniform, and this might come into play in a few seconds. In addition L5, L4 and L3 seem to be clustered, which might play a role as well.
Before diving into the return portion of the play, let’s talk about keeping your lane. For the majority of the coverage players, they will spend the first 15 yards or so building up speed. Then as they start to encounter blockers, they need to avoid being blocked while the ball is in the air. They can swerve and even vacate their lanes, but must immediately get back on their landmark/path after avoiding contact. The quickest way to give up a return touchdown is by drifting out of your lane and never getting back. Once the ball is caught, you work towards the ball-carrier aiming for the outside shoulder, to again force him to the middle. If you need to avoid a blocker after the ball is caught, avoid them towards the ball-carrier keeping in mind your aiming point.
Now let’s look at the rough blocking design from the return team, keeping in mind that the players execute these blocking paths in relation to the returner:
This is a pretty standard six-man front middle return design. The two upbacks fold in to create a second wedge, and then the two deeper players in front of Patterson: James Develin (#46) and Kenjon Barner (#38) form a mini convoy for the returner.
In the initial period after the kick, as Patterson is settling under the football, nothing out of the ordinary happens. But the Chicago’s L5 makes a fateful decision. Keep your eyes on Sherrick McManis (#27), a reserve defensive back:
As you can see, before Patterson catches the kick McManis tries to avoid Nate Ebner (#43) and cuts well to the inside, taking himself off his landmark and out of his lane. Ebner simply rides him towards the opposite sideline, creating a big crease that Patterson will exploit.
Now let’s talk about Craig Maye for a second. You probably do not recognize the name, but Coach Maye was the special teams coach at Wesleyan University many….many years ago, and he’s who I learned kick return rules from. One of the things he drilled in our heads was that if you’re going to have a big return, two things need to happen: You need to get one coverage player on the ground, and your returner needs to make one guy miss. The Patriots check these boxes and more on this return.
Here’s the state of play when Patterson receives the kick:
As you can see McManis is well off his landmark, and has created a gap between himself and the L2 player, much bigger than their pre-kick alignment. In addition the L1 player is starting to fold and stack behind the rest of the coverage players. But before we get the missed tackle, the Patriots are about to get one one, but four Bears players to the turf. The three critical blocks on this play come from Ebner, Brandon King (#36) and J.C. Jackson (#27):
Ebner rides McManis to the outside, and as Patterson accelerates upfield, the reserve safety keeps him pinned away from the returner and off his landmark, eventually getting McManis to the turf. But then there is the work from King and Jackson. They are blocking the L4 and L3 players, and they manage to block those players into each other, creating a mini pileup. (Remember their alignment pre-kick? If you had forgotten, now you remember it). Unfortunately for L4 DeAndre Houston-Carson (#36) there will be no additional exploits. As he tries to angle towards Patterson he runs right into the pile-up, and takes himself out:
What has this done? Given Patterson a beautiful crease, but with two remaining threats: Parkey and the L1 player, Toliver:
Returning to Maye’s rules of kickoff returns for a moment, the coach had one more rule for the returners: If you get tackled by the kicker or the punter, you’re fired. Patterson is not about to let that happen:
Patterson senses that Toliver is closing, and he stops on a dime, letting Toliver run right by him. That quick change-of-direction move creates the missed tackle and in the process works to take out a pursuing player, reserve linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe (#45). Toliver and Iyiegbuniwe collide, forcing both players to the turf. From there, Patterson outruns the rest of the pursuit.
Putting it all together, you have a big momentum changer and a bit of redemption for Patterson:
The house call cut into Chicago’s lead, and gave a much needed jolt to the New England sideline. While this game would have more twists, turns and big plays — perhaps none bigger than Duron Harmon’s tackle of Kevin White on the game’s final snap — this Patterson return came at just the right moment, as this game seemed to be turning away from the Patriots.