The New England Patriots have long been known for their special teams prowess across the NFL. Which is why kicker Chad Ryland was even more excited to hear his name called by the team back in April during the NFL Draft.
“I think the history of the special team units that have come through here is really relevant,” Ryland told Pats Pulpit. “You got the great [Adam] Vinateri, [Stephen] Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, all those guys.
“And not just kickers too. I mean, you got probably the best guy to ever step on special teams in Matt Slater. So being around those guys, it’s awesome. It’s definitely a huge blessing and it’s nice to be somewhere where that’s certainly valued.”
Part of New England’s excellence on special teams is due to their staff, which is headlined by long-time assistant Joe Judge and coordinator Cam Achord. But, a third member of the staff, Joe Houston, may fly under the radar despite playing a prominent role within the unit and providing a unique perspective as a former kicker himself.
“Houston does a great job, working with all the specialists and also working with the core guys as well,” Achord told reporters Tuesday. “But I always think it’s a special opportunity when you have a guy that’s done it before, felt the ball off his foot, kicked the ball off his foot. It’s a guy that can really talk about how it’s feeling where you’re hitting the ball.
“Anything can be learned as you see coaching. But, Joe is a great resource for those guys. He does a great job with them, talking to them, keeping their minds right. And just talking about, ‘Hey, well, you know where’d it hit here, was our [operation] time, were we smooth? Were you tight? Where you crouch over? You see the ball through,’ — just all the technique things. Using those bunch of words that those guys like to hear that they know. So he does a great job.”
Houston kicked at the University of Southern California from 2007-10, where he lead the Trojans in scoring during his senior season. After graduating, Houston spent two seasons in the Arena Football League with the Chicago Rush and the Nebraska Danger.
He’s now able to share his knowledge and experience with Ryland throughout his rookie season.
“I think it’s super nice to have a guy like Joe around who was a former kicker himself,” Ryland said. “Obviously at USC been around the game and high level football for a long time and special teams as a whole.
“It’s a pretty cool dynamic when you have guys like that certainly understand and have a strong grasp of what it takes to be successful. And I think part of that comes from their own knowledge and then also having guys that have been around the game for a long time, like Matt, obviously, Joe [Cardona] is a vet too. So the guys that carry that experience, it certainly certainly goes a long way.”
While being able to rely on the former kicker is valuable experience for Ryland, the rookie is making sure to grab any bit of additional knowledge he can, no matter the origin.
“I think when you look around the building as a whole, there’s a pretty strong knowledge and sense of kickers, punters, long snappers along with general special teams knowledge across the board, not just Houston,” he added.
“Even position players like guys that are predominantly wide receivers, safeties, like everyone in and around this organization has a really strong grasp of special teams because it’s important and it’s valued here. Which I think is a testament to what we got going on here.”
Wrong Side of History
After Leighton Vander Esch’s 11-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the second quarter, the Cowboys lined up for an extra point. But the ball was never kicked, as holder Bryan Anger rolled to his right and lofted a pass to Chauncey Golston who was able to walk in for two points.
The play marked the first successful fake for a 2-point conversion since extra points were pushed back to the 15-yard line in 2015.
“You get the look that you're hoping for and have the guts to call it,” Cowboys special teams coordinator John “Bones” Fassel said post game. “Talked about it all week and practiced it all week. After the first PAT, we kind of liked the look that we saw — it matched what we had studied — and said let’s do it on the second one.”
The look Fassel was likely referring was centered around New England’s extra point formation. Every extra point the Patriots have defended this season has featured all 11 players on the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.
It’s an aggressive look that Dallas knew they could burn New England later in the game once they saw them align similarly on the opening PAT (above).
“We’ve always been aggressive on those extra points,” Patriots captain Matthew Slater said Monday. “We play every field goal or pat attempt, very aggressively in hopes of blocking it. And I think they just did a great job of noticing a tendency and seeing an area where maybe we were a little light in terms of our soundness
“I tip my hat to Coach Bones. I think he’s one of the best special teams coaches I’ve seen in my career and that showed up yesterday.”
While there was much praise from the Patriots specialists and coaches for John Fassel following the Cowboys game, New England now turns their attention to another long-time aggressive special teams coordinator in Darren Rizzi and the New Orleans Saints.
The Patriots are quite familiar with Rizzi, who served as the Miami Dolphins special teams coordinator from 2010-18, and know the challenges his unit can provide.
“They play hard. Whenever you get ready to play a team that’s coached by Darren Rizzi, you got to get ready,” special teams coordinator Cam Achord said Tuesday. “They’re gonna play hard, they’re gonna play aggressive, they’re gonna present a lot of your time with the rushes on punt return. The multiples on kickoff return or kickoff, he does a lot of things with them. Punt multiple formations.
“So, you know, it’s a really good challenge, good job job trying to get these guys ready to play.”
Similarly to playing against Bones’ unit in Dallas, New England knows Rizzi’s unit can throw a curveball at any time — even in a league that has seemed to have restricted what special teams units can get away with.
“I would say there are several coaches out there who have progressed this game in a really, really great way and they’ve done it through obviously coaching with techniques or coaching with schematics or coaching with personnel,” Slater said. “But, you mentioned Bones and then obviously coach Rizzi this week, I think those are two guys that are at the forefront of that and there are a long list of others.
“So I really appreciate the innovation that exists out there, the commitment that a lot of these guys have to their craft.”
Achord later added: “You know, it’s always fun and exciting when you get to play a guy that, you know, presents some different challenges for your guys.”
Beyond the challenges of Rizzi’s scheme and multiple looks, the Saints’ roster boasts a number of players that excel on special teams too, lead by two-time All-Pro J.T. Gray and explosive returner Rashid Shaheed — who leads the NFL with a 23.8-yard punt return average.
“They’re a very physical, explosive, aggressive team,” Achord said. “Rizzi has got seven guys out there that are playing four phases. So, he’s got a really good true core out there, whether it’s J.T. Gray or it’s among the other players that have been there a while for them.
“A really solid group led by Gray,” Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “He’s one of the top players in the league. Absolutely have to block him, account for him, to have any chance of return on punts or kickoffs, as good as anybody we play.”
New Orleans’ talented special teams unit also features a new kicker and punter. That punter, Lou Hedley, is one of the Australian-born punters who specialize in the rugby-style punts that has become popular in the collegiate level in recent years.
“A little different, some of the punt things they do,” Belichick said. “A little bit like the college games, so that’ll be a little bit new for us there with Hedley.”
Belichick then added more detail as to what goes into that “college” style of punting:
“The formations, just rolling and punting in the direction that the punter is rolling and also being able to cross field it and kind of play keep away from the returner. The ball travels a little different, too. I think there’s been a couple of examples where you see the returners having a little trouble judging the ball, not having as clean of a catch as what you normally see.
“Look, we’ve worked him out. I think we know Hedley. But, playing against him, as a player, playing against that type of a kick when you see more of the traditional NFL punts as opposed to the running, rugby-type punts – which, he can just stand back there and punt it too, they do both – but, it just adds another level of preparation and a different fundamental that you’re not as used to doing.”
While Hedley has struggled at times this season with a sub-40 net average and sub-4 second average hang time, the style of punt can be difficult for returners.
As for Patriots punt returner Demario Douglas, he’s comfortable with that style after seeing plenty of those punts in college, but knows it will be a tough task in the NFL.
“I’ve seen it plenty of times at Liberty,” Douglas told Pats Pulpit. “Lots of people have done it so I wouldn't say it’s my first time seeing it, but it’s my first time seeing it in the league. Definitely gonna be something different, but definitely excited for the challenge.”
Christian Gonzalez’s injury will surely be felt on New England’s defense this season, but his absence will make an impact elsewhere as well.
That was seen on Sunday, when Gonzalez needed to be replaced as the vise on special teams. It's a role the rookie has held often this year, playing 16 snaps on punt return through three weeks.
“There’s some communication, especially throughout the game, making those adjustments and it may not be just one moving piece,” Achord told reporters Tuesday. “So that’s where you see one guy go down and there’s four guys end up taking that guy’s one responsibility.
“We tell them all the time you got to step up, you ready to play. And it may not be one guy that replaced them. There may be two guys that replace them and you may have to adjust schematically because the guy’s skill set may be just slightly different than the other guy’s skill set.One guy may be fast, one guy may be stronger.
“So changing where those guys play, that’s part of putting the puzzle together, the coach to get the best out of it in the kicking game.”
With Gonzalez sidelined, his vise role was passed on to fellow cornerback Shaun Wade at first. It marked Wade’s first special teams snaps since Week 6 of last season, and the opposing gunner (Jalen Tolbert, top) made the tackle on Dallas’ first punt of the game.
Tolbert brought down returner Demario Douglas — who was also filling in for the injured Marcus Jones — for a two-yard loss at New England’s 10-yard line. With the Patriots offense then backed up, it took just two plays for Dallas’ defense to capitalize with the scoop-and-score touchdown and extend the lead to double digits.
“All of sudden you double up with the big special teams hit, the defensive stop — the scoop-and-score, the double whammy on the fake PAT,” Fassel said post game. “All of a sudden it’s 18-3, that's a ton of momentum.
“We get about 28 snaps a games on six phases worth of specials teams. And one can change the course of the game — good or bad.”
Dallas punted just one other time in the contest and it was again Wade serving as the vise. With now a week to game plan — and with Wade perhaps again needed more at cornerback — time will tell who occupies the role against New Orleans.
“You know, you can’t just say, ‘Hey, you gotta play no matter what,’ if you’re playing, 75 plays on defense as well,” Achord added. “We try to make sure we’re getting a proper balance. If you play 75 percent on offense or defense, you’re gonna try to play 25-30 percent in the kicking game. So it’s 100 percent of the game, so to speak.”
“We try to balance it. We try to figure out what those guys roles are gonna be each week. And that’s why you’ll see guys play a little bit more, a little less, but changes each week just because that’s part of the coaching of seeing what the roles are on offense or defense because they do change every week.
“And so they change the kicking game as well because you want those guys to be fresh when they’re out there on the field. So it’s just a good job of communicating — most of us knowing how much guy’s role is going to increase or decrease. And throughout the game of, ‘Hey, this guy went down so now he’s playing anymore who’s our next guy in?’”