Starting the second half of their Week 2 contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers on offense and with a 10-3 lead, the New England Patriots were in a prime position to put some breathing room between themselves and their opponent. They failed to do that.
The Patriots’ first possession of the third quarter ended in a missed field goal, setting Pittsburgh up in promising field position. New England’s lead had shrunk to 10-6 seven plays later, and the ensuing drive did also not go much better. After four plays, Jake Bailey and the punt team had to enter the field again.
That’s when Brenden Schooler’s big moment came.
Lining up as the left-side punter, the undrafted rookie was left unaccounted for by the Steelers’ return squad. This allowed him a free release at the line of scrimmage, and to sprint down the field toward ex-Patriot and All-Pro punt returner Gunner Olszewski.
With Schooler coming in, Olszewski made a costly mistake: he failed to bring the ball in and instead muffed the kick to turn it into a live play. New England’s young gunner reacted quickly to jump onto the ball and secure possession for his team at the Pittsburgh 20-yard line.
One penalty and three offensive plays later, New England was up 17-6 — thanks in large part due to Schooler. Needless to say that the former undrafted free agent received plenty of praise after the Patriots’ win.
“Consistent player. It’s hard to do that as a rookie, day-in and day-out,” said safety Devin McCourty after New England’s 17-14 victory. “Obviously, you guys have seen it only on special teams, but I would say even defensively when he was asked to go in there in preseason and some of those joint practice.
“He wouldn’t always get a ton of time with us — he was doing a lot of meeting with [Matthew Slater] and Cody [Davis] and Cam [Achord] and Joe Houston to get up and to play at that starting level, that high level special teams — but when asked to go there on defense, understanding the call, understanding what he needs to do. You see that translate into the high level of special teams, with the movement.”
Coming off an eventful college career, Schooler did not hear his name called in this year’s draft. He did find a home with the Patriots shortly thereafter, though, and never looked back.
The 25-year-old quickly established himself as a prominent presence in the kicking game, regularly spending time with New England’s special teams leaders during practice. He turned those opportunities into successful on-field performances in training camp and preseason, eventually finding his way onto the active roster last month.
After playing 10 kicking game snaps in the season opener against Miami, the rookie was prominently featured versus Pittsburgh as well. The high-point of his day was putting pressure on Olszewski and eventually securing his muffed punt.
For McCourty, this was an example of Schooler just taking advantage of an opportunity that presented himself.
“Today, they didn’t block him or line him up. Probably not what you want to do, to not block the gunner,” he said. “But to go down there and capitalize off a mistake, it’s huge. A big percentage of that game is that: capitalizing off mistakes and being ready to go when the opportunity presents itself.”
Just like he has been ever since arriving in Foxborough, Schooler was ready in that moment. He made sure not to let that opportunity go to waste.