The New England Patriots fielded the best special teams unit in football last year, but the group was off to an uncharacteristically sloppy start in 2021. One area was of particular concern: punt protection. The Patriots allowed two Jake Bailey punts to be blocked; one in Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints and another in Week 6 versus the Dallas Cowboys.
Since that game against Dallas, however, New England’s punt protection unit has returned to its usual high levels of play. Together with the other coverage teams it is helping the Patriots regularly win the field position battle, which has been a key factor during the current recent five-game winning streak.
The performance is also reflected in the expected points added (EPA) metric. In fact, as Pro Football Focus’ Arjun Menon recently pointed out, no other kick coverage group in the NFL has been as productive as the Patriots’ this season (even though his graphic used 2022 instead of 2021):
Led by future Patriots (and Pro Football?) Hall of Famer Matthew Slater as well as veteran special teamers Brandon King, Cody Davis and Justin Bethel, New England has been able to limit opposing kick returns while simultaneously moving the ball well on its own runbacks. The players deserve plenty of credit — as do the likes of punter/kickoff specialist Jake Bailey or return man Gunner Olszewski — but so does their coach.
Patriots special teams coordinator Cam Achord has his unit ready yet again, and he has therefore been able to fill some big shoes.
Achord first arrived in New England in 2018, after having served numerous roles at Southwest Mississippi Community College. Offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, running backs coach, tight ends coach, recruiting coordinator, you name it. Also one of his roles: special teams coordinator.
Two years after joining the Patriots and serving as Joe Judge’s assistant, he was elevated to the coordinator position following Judge’s departure to the New York Giants. In two seasons at the helm, he has helped New England field as impressive a special teams unit as any in football.
Just last year, for example, it had three of its members voted to the All-Pro team: Gunner Olszewski and Jake Bailey were the first-team punt returner and punter, respectively, with Matthew Slater becoming a second-team special teamer.
While the group did stay mostly intact heading into 2021, it did have some miscues early on during the season. Recently, however, the unit has turned a corner and is once more playing a positive role for a Patriots team consistently preaching “complementary football.”
As for Achord’s impact on the group, the following quote from earlier this year says it all.
“We have high expectations,” he said when speaking about New England’s special teams prowess. “We push the guys to meet them and they respond very well. It starts at the top with the coach and goes on to the players, the veteran guys that we have, who pass it on to the young guys. That’s what allows you to continually do this at a high level.”
The Patriots have had high-quality special teams coaching throughout the Bill Belichick era. Brad Seely, Scott O’Brien and Joe Judge started the tradition, and Cam Achord is successfully keeping it alive in his second year.