With their Thanksgiving night game against the Minnesota Vikings tied at 26 in the early fourth quarter, the New England Patriots defense made an important stop on a 3rd-and-14. They limited the Vikings to 11 yards on their third-down pass, forcing them to send their punt team onto the field.
One play later, the Minnesota offense was back out there. What had happened? Patriots rookie Pierre Strong Jr. made a no-no.
Aligning as a pressure player on the punt return team, the fourth-round draft pick attempted to block the kick from fellow rookie Ryan Wright. However, Strong Jr. came in too hot, made contact with Wright’s right leg and drew a penalty for running into the kicker.
The 5-yard infraction moved the chains on 4th-and-3, and eventually set the stage for the Vikings to score the go-ahead touchdown just three plays later.
Needless to say that the flag was a big one. Speaking to reporters in the locker room after the game, Strong Jr. took ownership of the error.
“Bad play by me,” the youngster told MassLive’s Chris Mason. “I’ve got to learn from it and grow from it. So it’s on me.”
Strong Jr. running into Wright on the punt was among the biggest plays of the day from a statistical perspective. It cost New England 10 win-percentage points and 2.7 expected points — ranking tenth and ninth in the respective categories on the day.
It was not the Patriots’ only special teams blunder, though. The unit also surrendered a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown in the third quarter and additionally struggled to win the field position on an off-day for punter Michael Palardy.
“We feel like we let the team down with our performance,” team captain Matthew Slater said after the game. “I always tell guys, ‘You’ve got to stay here’ when things are going well. That you can’t get too far ahead of yourself and start celebrating. And then when you have nights like tonight, you have to try to keep moving forward and not get too down.”
Slater, Strong Jr. and the rest of the Patriots’ special teams unit will get a chance to redeem themselves next Thursday night. The Buffalo Bills will visit Gillette Stadium, and the field position battle will once again be crucial.