Welcome to the Play of the Game, a weekly breakdown of the last game’s top play as voted on by you, the fans. Today, we will take a closer look at the New England Patriots’ blowout victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 13 and how a second-year punt returner was able to break free for his first career touchdown.
The New England Patriots’ return game has struggled mightily over the team’s first 10 regular season games. Whether it was kickoffs or punts, the group was unable to make any major plays with returner Gunner Olszewski either have no space to operate or choosing the wrong lane on a seemingly consistent basis. The Patriots’ fortunes, however, changed in Week 12 against the Arizona Cardinals.
With Donte Moncrief taking over the kickoff role and Olszewski now only responsible for punt, the Patriots broke two long returns en route to a 20-17 victory. While Moncrief was unable to repeat his performance the following Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, Olszewski did — and more: the second-year man, who later also caught a receiving touchdown, finished the game with a return average of 48.3 yards per runback.
He also found the end zone at one point. That play in the early second quarter gave the Patriots a 14-0 lead, and Olszewski his first career touchdown after a would-be score was pulled off the board last week due to a block-in-the-back penalty versus teammate Anfernee Jennings.
There were no flags this time, though, and the play stood as one of the best of not just the Patriots’ 45-0 victory but their season as a whole. Let’s take a look at it.
4-9-LAC 21 (14:18) T.Long punts 49 yards to NE 30, Center-C.Mazza. G.Olszewski for 70 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
After taking a 7-0 lead on the game’s opening drive, the Patriots offense failed to generate the same momentum on its second possession. This, in turn, gave the Chargers an opportunity to possibly march for a game-tying touchdown in the early second quarter. The team, however, went three-and-out and had to send its punt team onto the field in an attempt to flip field position in a favorable way from the Los Angeles 21-yard line.
That did very much not happen.
The play that followed already began before the ball was snapped, with the Patriots deciding to send their perimeter blockers — Justin Bethel (#29) and Jonathan Jones (#31) — into the box in order to give them more bodies to possibly attack the Chargers’ protection. That move forced L.A. to make a decision: Do they want their gunners open to chase down the field or risk a potential block by being outmatched in the middle of the field?
The team decided that going for maximum protection was the way to go, so they sent gunners Tevaughn Campbell (#37) and Brandon Facyson (#28) into the box as well to solidify the edge. This, in turn, put 20 men — all but punter Ty Long (#1) and Gunner Olszewski (#80) — in a pretty confined space and created an opportunity for some positive congestion from New England’s perspective.
When the ball was eventually snapped, however, the Patriots rushed only three players with everyone else quickly either engaging in blocks or dropping back to set theirs up. All of them are worth keeping a close eye on, so let’s go through them one-by-one to see how they contributed to what eventually turned into a 70-yard return touchdown by Olszewski.
Before doing that, however, a look at the play itself:
As said above, every member on the Patriots’ return team is worth keeping a close eye on. So let’s do just that.
CB Jonathan Jones (#31): After moving into the formation before the snap, Jones quickly engages on the aforementioned Brandon Facyson, who followed him from the perimeter. Jones end up setting a pretty wide edge on the play together with...
L3 Jason McCourty (#30): The veteran cornerback stood up Facyson right after the snap, and immediately forced him to the outside and into his double-team with Jonathan Jones.
L2 Sony Michel (#26): The former first-round draft pick initially rushed up the field, but dropped back once the ball was snapped to help the Patriots form a wall on the right side of the field from their point of view. He actually did a pretty good job to get in the way of coverage defender Isaac Rochell (#98) on the play without risking the same penalty that was imposed upon Anfernee Jennings last week.
L1 Donte Moncrief (#14): New England’s kickoff returner immediately started charging to the right to help set up the wall return and made a significant block along the way by forcing Malik Jefferson (#46) to the outside to create an alley for Olszewski to run through.
NT Rashod Berry (#43): The practice squad elevatee was one of the rushers but did not have an impact on the punt. After being wrestled down, he got up quickly to reverse up the field again and later did a nice job to get around long snapper Cole Mazza (#45) to block him down the field instead of toward New England’s end zone — again helping prevent a penalty by showing some good form. He also engaged Mazza long enough to allow Olszewski to get by him.
R1 Joejuan Williams (#33): Williams also joined in on the rush but more than that engaged Cole Christiansen (#50) right from the snap. While the Chargers’ coverage linebacker was eventually able to get free, Williams chased him down the field and got a hand on him again while turning himself around quickly to also not risk a block-in-the-back call against him.
R2 Cody Davis (#22): Davis essentially played the Jason McCourty role on the other side of the line. After the snap he immediately engaged the aforementioned gunner Tevaughn Campbell to form a double-team alongside Justin Bethel. He later crossed the field after being driven to the left, blocking off ex-Patriot Stephen Anderson (#82) as Olszewski was 20 yards from the end zone.
R3 Adrian Phillips (#21): The former Charger moved around the edge after the snap and mirrored fullback Gabe Nabers (#40) along the way. Phillips did a tremendous job of initially sticking to the outside but getting in front of Nabers to block him out of Olszewski’s lane. The importance of that block cannot be understated, as it helped New England’s returner get to the second level.
CB Justin Bethel (#29): Like Jonathan Jones, Bethel also moved into the box before the snap to draw Tevaughn Campbell with him. After the play was underway, Bethel quickly engaged alongside Cody Davis to force Campbell to the left side of the field. Like Davis, he also crossed back to the other side and did just enough to keep his assignment from taking down Gunner Olszewski around 15 yards from the end zone.
LB Matthew Slater (#18): Slater instantly started his sprint up the field after the ball was snapped, and set himself up 10 yards from Olszewski to help form the perimeter wall on the right side. The veteran played the down perfectly by standing his ground against Los Angeles personal protector Jahleel Addae (#36). Slater had one job on the play, and he executed it.
PR Gunner Olszewski (#80): Finally, the man who took advantage of the blocks in front of him. Olszewski not only tracked the ball well in the air, he quickly started charging forward after catching the ball to make up some ground before any coverage defenders came close to him. Knowing that he would get a wall formed to his right, he made the first cut behind Slater before seeing his opening with Moncrief and Phillips moving their men to the boundary. Once through that hole, he essentially had only one man left to beat — punter Ty Long, who did get a hand on the ball-carrier but failed to slow his momentum down.
“He’s becoming a really dependable, very confident player. And he’s a difference maker, we felt that way all season,” said Slater after the game about Olszewski’s contributions as a return man. “It’s funny, we had people asking, ‘What’s wrong with the kicking game? Why aren’t we making the plays that we normally would?’ And the key is just sticking with it. You stick with it long enough you do things the right way — like Gunner has done since he’s gotten here — eventually the play’s going to come your way.”
The play very much came the Patriots’ way on Sunday, with both the blockers and the returner executing their assignments perfectly.