BOSTON (CBS) — When coaches like Bill Belichick talk about all three phases of the game, they’re not joking. While special teams units rarely outright win games, poor play on special teams can turn sure wins into heart-breaking defeats.
So how have the Patriots special teams units performed thus far? Read on to see their midseason grades. And if you missed the offense’s report card, you can read it by clicking here, and if you missed the defense’s report card, check that out by clicking here.
Kickoff team: A
Admittedly, the role of a kickoff team changed dramatically when the kickoff moved five yards closer to the end zone. So with a giant leg like that of Stephen Gostkowski, coverage becomes less important when the ball goes out the back of the end zone half of the time.
Yet when opposing returners do venture out of the end zone for a return, they don’t make it too far. The Patriots allow an average return of 21.7 yards, which is ninth-best in the league, and the longest single return they’ve allowed was a 41-yarder, where 21 teams have allowed longer returns.
The best thing a kickoff team can do is simply not screw up, and thus far, it’s been mission accomplished for the Patriots.
Kickoff return team: B-
Likewise, the kick return team took on a different role last year when the NFL moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line, making a starting position of even the 25-yard line an accomplishment for a returning unit.
And if getting the ball past the 20 is the measuring stick, the Patriots have done OK with an average return of 23.4 yards. It’s not the best in the league (Buffalo’s 30.8 yards), and it’s not the worst in the league (Chicago’s 17.9). It’s good but not great.
The Patriots get bonus points for Devin McCourty’s return for a touchdown, but they immediately get taken away by McCourty’s fumble later in that same game. A turnover on a kick return is much more costly than a return for a touchdown is beneficial, and it could have (and really should have) cost the Patriots a victory.
Punt team: B-
Zoltan Mesko is awesome. In his first two years on the job, he established as much. This year, though, he’s taken a minor step back. Well, he’s taken a step back only in the sense that a punter can only step so far back.
The punting unit ranks 30th in the league in average yards per punt (42) and 27th in the league in net yards per punt (39.6). Those numbers are way down from Mesko’s averages the past two seasons. In his rookie season of 2010, he averaged 43.2 yards and 38.4 net yards per punt, and last year he averaged 46.5 yards and 41.5 net yards per punt. They ranked 11th and fifth in those respective categories last year, so this season represents a major drop-off through eight games.
Like the offense, though, the punting unit put together an encouraging performance in their final showing before the bye week, with Mesko back in Europe to show off how far he can kick the funny-shaped ball. He had a 56.5 yard average and a 46.5 yard net average in his two kicks in London, which came a week after he pinned the Jets at their own 11-, 12-, 10-, 5- and 8-yard line.
If the grade was for the last two weeks, it would be an A+, but given the shakiness to the start of the season, a B seems about right. Factor in the blocked punt against Arizona that proved crucial in a loss, and it gets knocked down to a B-.
Punt return team: B-
Julian Edelman and Wes Welker have handled all the punts.
They average 11 yards per return. The league average is 9.2 yards. Welker’s is a little better at 13.5; Edelman’s is a little worse at 8.8.
Their longest return is 27 yards, which ranks tied for 16th in the league.
All of this is to say, simply, that the punt return team is OK and not much more.
Field goal team: C
Stephen Gostkowksi has hit eight straight field goals, including two from the 40-49-yard range, which is very good. Unfortunately though, he missed three of his first 11 attempts on the season, including what should have been a game-winner against the Cardinals.
He handled those early struggles well, and he’s proven capable of turning it around already. Provided he continues on that path, he’ll no doubt be in A territory come January. But for now, based on the entire body of work, the field goal unit gets a C.