One of the hallmarks of New England Patriots football is not shooting yourself in the foot. This season, so far, the team has been unable to do that in one area in particular: punt protection.
Usually among the stoutest special teams groups in the league, the Patriots’ has surrendered three punt blocks already this year. No other team in the NFL currently has given up more than one. In fact, New England has allowed almost half of all punt blocks in football this season.
The latest of those happened in Week 15 against the Indianapolis Colts. A Jake Bailey punt attempt in the first quarter was blocked, leading to a Colts recovery in the end zone for a touchdown.
Earlier this week, New England special teams coordinator Cam Achord was asked about his team’s issues. Achord pointed to himself first and foremost.
“In all honesty, it starts with me and just doing the fundamentals, techniques,” he said. “Making sure the guys are understanding what I’m asking for, looking for, and just executing our techniques better. It goes back to me and making sure I’m stressing that and coaching that effectively. As long as we can start doing that and improve our fundamental techniques, we should be able to handle the punt protections.”
Entering 2021, the Patriots had not given up a blocked punt in five straight seasons. This year, however, they have surrendered three of them already.
The first happened in Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints, with the Dallas Cowboys also successfully blocking one three weeks later. None of them resulted in any points — the Saints missed a field goal afterwards, the Cowboys lost a fumble on 4th-and-1 — but they were still negative plays from New England’s perspective.
They also have something in common with the block suffered against the Colts. All three plays saw the opponent’s force get through a hole in New England’s interior protection to get to Jake Bailey.
For Achord, the coaching points are obvious.
“You have to emphasize the blocking,” he said. “Those guys on the inside have to protect, and I have to make sure they understand that. I have to do a better job with coaching that. And the guys on the outside, the gunners, they are out there to cover. That’s the main priority. Obviously, if you don’t get the punt off then there is no coverage to the punt.”
New England’s special teams coordinator, who is in his second season at the job, appears to point at release times up front as the main issue: the players asked to protect try to get upfield too quickly, not holding their blocks long enough to keep the punter safe.
“Anytime you know you’re getting force and rushing in there you have to stay there in protection half a second longer or a second longer just to make sure you’re not letting the guy going — quick-setting is the word I use, where you’re flashing and going, and you’re suspect to a block,” he said. “We just have to do a good job of getting our footwork, setting back and striking.
“Then you have to sustain, and then there’s a mental clock part of it as well. You’re not going to stand back there and block for four seconds, five seconds. It’s not a pass play. You’re usually getting it off between two, two-and-a-half seconds, with the ball being operated from snap to punt. There’s a bit of mental part to it, but anytime you’re getting a force you just emphasize the protection on the inside first.”