The New England Patriots were able to exorcise some demons in Week 7 against the Buffalo Bills. Not only were they able to snap a four-game losing streak against their division rivals, they also managed to bounce back from what was a disappointing special teams performance in the previous meeting between the two teams.
Granted, the Patriots did not manage to run back a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns like the Bills did in last year’s regular season finale. They did, however, play one of their best special teams games of the season and allowed the kicking game to make a difference in a four-point victory.
Special teams is, by the very definition, more than individual performance. That said, three players in particular played a big part in the group’s outing versus Buffalo.
All three of them were rookies: kicker Chad Ryland, punter Bryce Baringer, and punt returner Demario Douglas.
“The young guys came to play. And they didn’t just come to play, they came to win,” said team captain Matthew Slater about them on Monday.
Whereas the early portion of the season had its expected ups and downs in the kicking department, Ryland and Baringer bounced back in style versus Buffalo. The former made all three of his field goal attempts plus a pair of extra points, while the latter pinned the Bills deep on both his punts.
Considering that conditions at a windy Gillette Stadium were anything but ideal, their performances deserve to be pointed out.
“I thought both guys did a great job,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “It wasn’t easy out there, and they hit the ball well, gave us what we needed. We covered kicks, two kickoffs, I think it was, and the punt — the other punt went out of bounds right before the half. It was a good kick, but those guys did a great job, gave us kicks we could cover.”
Ryland, a fourth-round draft pick, entered the game off a few rough performances. He did manage to make all seven of his extra points over the first six weeks of the season, but went just 5-of-9 on field goal tries.
Against the Bills, however, he showed why New England was comfortable bringing him aboard and handing him the keys to the position over incumbent veteran Nick Folk: besides those aforementioned extra points, he also split the uprights from 30, 24 and 49 yards out. In addition, he helped limit Buffalo’s kickoff returns to only 19.3 yards per attempt.
“Being a rookie specialist in this league is very tough. It’s probably one of the hardest things to do, and there are going to be some ups and downs — that’s just part of the process,” said Slater. “But I think he’s really handled those so well. His confidence has never wavered. His ability to prepare week-in and week-out, and be ready to go, that has always been there. And it’s great to see that rewarded the way it was [Sunday].
“Honestly, those were very tough conditions to kick in, very challenging. And I thought all three of those kicks he hit were big-time kicks, and certainly we needed all the points. But you’re really happy to see a young player who stays true to the process, doesn’t cheat the game, and has just great perspective not just on football, but on life. His perspective is one we all could learn from. It’s great to see a guy like that come through and have success because he certainly has earned it. Very happy for him.”
Bryce Baringer, a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft, did not have the same high-profile misses as Ryland this year. However, he too has struggled with consistency — not an unsurprising given his status as a rookie.
But after averaging 44.1 yards per punt with a high variance and a net of 39.2, he delivered his best game as a pro versus the Bills. Baringer’s two punts averaged 55.0 yards with a net of 51.5, and helped flip the field position in New England’s favor both times.
His first kick went from the Patriots’ 30 to the Bills 6 — a gain of 64 yards — and limited the return to only seven yards before Brenden Schooler came up with the tackle. His second, meanwhile, fell out of bounds at the Buffalo 3 after traveling 46 yards.
“Bryce, I think he hit about a 100-yard punt on that first one,” said Slater. “Felt like we were running forever. But, again, just trusting his process, taking the right line, understanding what the wind was going to do with his ball, and just hitting a great ball on that first one. And then our operation really gave us an advantage, and Schooler was able to get a great matchup on the backside, and run down to make a great play. So, I thought that was great team football. Really, two guys controlling the game there.
“Bryce did a tremendous job, and then that second punt that he had I thought he played it perfectly, just understanding the wind, knowing where to put it, not giving them the chance to get points before the half, and just single-handedly shutting down the return game. That was a great job.”
The third rookie prominently featured in the kicking game was Demario Douglas. The sixth-round draft pick, who also had four catches for 54 yards in the most active day of his career as a wide receiver, served as the Patriots’ punt returner.
He only got one opportunity in that role, but he made sure to make it count. He gained 25 yards — a critical gain that helped set up a field goal to putt New England up 13-3 at the half.
“You can’t say enough good things about Pop, and what he did [Sunday],” said Slater. “Obviously, you saw what he did offensively, but I think on that punt return he was really aggressive — especially with the call that we had on — to make a play and just trust his God-given ability. We tell Pop to, ‘Just be you back there, trust what God gave you, and don’t second-guess yourself.’ I think he did a good job of that yesterday, and that was a huge return.
“Obviously, gave us some momentum. And that’s the complementary football that we’ve been talking about. We’ve been looking to play that complementary football, and I think all three of those young men did a great job of stepping up in their roles and helping us play good complementary football.”
The Patriots will continue counting on all three of Ryland, Baringer and Douglas moving forward. And while the rookie rollercoaster rarely stops, their performance against the Bills illustrated the heights it can reach.