“We had some really good plays on special teams, so shout out to special teams this week,” defensive lineman Adam Butler said postgame. “That’s good. That’s what we needed.”
Big plays were exactly what they needed, as the Patriots offense struggled to move the ball throughout the day. After opening the game with an interception and a punt, a 53-yard kick return by Donte Moncrief set up New England’s offense with a short field to work with.
“Yeah, we had the right return on and Jak [Jakob Johnson] and Gunner [Olszewski] made two great blocks,” Moncrief said. “So, I just followed them and I saw the hole. I hit the crease. I remember coach telling me early on in a week, he was like, ‘There’s going be a hole, you’ve just got to hit it.’ I just put my trust in what he told me, and when I did it, it worked.
“What’s crazy is I did it my rookie year with the Colts, and I haven’t done it since then. The special teams coach asked me, ‘How do you feel about doing returns?’ I’m like, ‘If you need me to do it, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever to help this team.’ He gave me a chance during the week and he liked what he saw, so he stuck with it.”
Trailing 10-0, New England capitalized on the short field just seven plays later, as James White plunged into the end zone for the Patriots’ first score of the game.
“Special teams had some huge returns for us and gave us good field position,” White said. “So, we played that complementary football at the right times. It wasn’t pretty, but we were able to fight and compete for four quarters and that’s all you can ask for.”
Moncrief wasn't the only player to make an impact in the return game, as Gunner Olszewski took a third-quarter punt 82-yards for a touchdown — which was called back by a questionable blindside block. Either way, the return started the Patriots’ offense at Arizona’s 39-yard line, which lead to a Nick Folk 22-yard field goal to tie the game at 10 apiece.
“Offensively we didn’t have our best game, but the defense kind of picked up the slack as well as the special teams. Big returns from Gun Show and ‘Crief. Those guys really took heed to coaching this past week,” quarterback Cam Newton said.
Despite Newton completing just nine passes for 84-yards on the day, the contributions from the special teams — and certainly defensive — unit put New England in position to win on Sunday. And after Arizona’a Zane Gonzalez missed a go-ahead 45-yard field goal with 1:52 remaining, Nick Folk was in a similar situation a handful of plays later. Just like he did in Week 9 against the Jets, he split the uprights to win the game.
“Special teams came up big in the return game – big kick return, big punt return. Jake [Bailey] punted the ball really well today. So, I think it was a full team win today, all the way around,” Folk said. “It wasn’t just me. There’s 120 to 140 plays in the whole game that led to that one last play and everyone contributed. I think we’re just happy to get that win and keep some good steam rolling forward.”
Keep the steam rolling forward is exactly what New England will hope to do, as they now travel to Los Angeles for their next two games against the Chargers and Rams. The Patriots will certainly welcome more performances like that from their special teams group going forward.
“It was a good job on special teams today,” head coach Bill Belichick said “I thought we covered well, we returned well, we made our kicks. Nick made a huge kick there at the end of the game, just like against the Jets, so... I thought our special teams had a good day for us.”