Special teams provide all the beauty in Pats win over Chargers

Published: 10/29/2017 7:57:54 PM
Modified: 11/12/2008 3:10:12 PM
Slater-(1).jpgPatriots special teams captain Matthew Slater
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The offense sputtered in the red zone. The defense was its charming, bendable self (aside from Melvin Gordon’s 87-yard touchdown run). Philip Rivers was Philip Rivers. New England’s special teams, however, were more than special.
In a game that otherwise personified U-G-L-Y, the Patriots beat the Los Angeles Chargers 21-13 on Sunday thanks to a glorious clinic from their kicking, coverage and return units.
New England’s special teams produced a game-changing safety, a 71-yard kickoff return, stellar kickoff coverage, negative punt return yardage and 14 of the team’s 21 points. They might also have blocked a field goal. The only mark against them is that Stephen Gostkowski missed two of his six (six!) field goal attempts on a weird, windy day. Otherwise, the Pats were awash in field position and time of possession, and the special teams were the key to all of it.
“The special teams’ performance was huge,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “I’m really proud of how our guys played today. … When you have a day like today, it really makes you feel good about the preparation time that you put in.”
The game turned in the second quarter thanks to New England’s aggressive punt coverage and a remarkably bad decision by Chargers return man Kelvin Benjamin. After Benjamin muffed Ryan Allen’s punt at the Los Angeles 11-yard line, he recovered at the 8 and then decided to circle back in attempt to elude oncoming tacklers and turn up field for positive yardage. Instead, the Patriots met him at the goal line, with Brandon King tackling him in the end zone for a safety to give New England a 9-7 lead.
Danny Amendola returned the ensuing free kick 16 yards to the Patriots 43, and Gostkowski’s added one of his four field goals on that drive. The Pats played from in front for the remainder of the game.
“Here we are punting the ball, and then at the end of the play we got two points and the ball back,” Slater said. “It was a huge momentum swing. I think the guys were really feeding off of the plays we were making in the kicking game, and that’s huge for us. Today’s a day where you’re proud to be associated with the special teams group.”
Thanks in part to injuries and in part to an influx of new talent, New England’s special teams have been inconsistent through the first half of the season. Although special teams are often an afterthought in assessing a team’s postseason chances, the Pats need that unit to perform well, especially in consideration of the injuries plaguing the defense. Last year, the Patriots had the eighth-most-efficient special teams in football, according to Football Outsiders. They were ranked 22nd after Week 4 this season, but had improved to 13th heading into Sunday’s game.
The numbers figure to improve more after New England’s performance on Sunday, in which they may have blocked their second field goal in as many weeks. Although the official stats don’t show it, it appeared that Lawrence Guy blocked Nick Novak’s 51-yard attempt in the first quarter. Cassius Marsh blocked a Matt Bryant attempt last week.
The return units also had a big day. Of the six times Gostkowski kicked off, five went into the end zone, with two resulting in touchbacks. The Chargers’ four returns went for 19, 17, 15 and 21 yards. They did even worse on punts. The only return attempt resulted in King’s safety. On Allen’s other two punts, the Chargers had to settle for fair catches at their own 12 and their own 18.
The Patriots meanwhile, got kickoff returns of 25 and 71 yards from Dion Lewis. Amendola had four punt returns for 26 total yards. The average Patriots drive started at their own 30, and Los Angeles had an average starting position at their own 20.
Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.

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