BOSTON (CBS) – Last Sunday, the Buffalo Bills were left without a timeout and, apparently, any other choice. Down by seven points and with the game clock reduced to 3 minutes, 26 seconds, they turned to an on-sides kick attempt as their last gasp in the regular season finale.
As Dan Carpenter, whose field goal had just pared New England’s lead to 27-20, started toward the tee on the hash mark to his right, Nate Ebner was bent at the waist in a wide stance, set to spring forward from 12 yards away. Carpenter trotted to the football and with his right foot tapped it straight ahead.
Three weeks earlier, Patriot Stephen Gostkowski perfectly executed a similar play, as if a batter softly pushing a sacrifice bunt toward the pitcher’s mound. That effort was instrumental in a victory over Cleveland.
In Carpenter’s case, he was kicking in conditions apt to produce an awkward bounce. Cold, driving rain already seemed a factor in four New England fumbles — all self-recovered — as well as a punt that splashed through the end zone after squirting away from the Patriots’ Kanorris Davis.
But as Carpenter’s kick skipped off the slick Gillette Stadium surface, an anticipating Ebner darted aggressively to his right for the recovery. Sticking with baseball analogies, he surrounded the football like a catcher smothering a pitch in the dirt.
“We do all kinds of situations in practice to try to get ourselves prepared for any type of situation that might come up such as that,” Ebner said several days later. “With that particular play, where I was aligned, it was the type of thing where I watched the ball, being so close. Really that’s all it was.
“You practice so much and you’ve just got to trust your ability at some point and not worry about it too much and just understand that it is wet and the ball has been slipping around all day. But at the same time, you let your instincts take over and do what you’ve practiced to do.”
Instinctive ability also served Ebner on a far more famous recovery this season. He was the Patriot who pounced on a punt muffed by Denver to give Gostkowski the chance to kick an overtime-ending field goal in late November.
Situating himself at opportune times, in opportune places seems to come naturally for Ebner, a reserve safety drafted by New England out of Ohio State as the 197th overall pick in 2012.
“I think Nate has shown that from all the opportunities that he’s had with us,” head coach Bill Belichick says of Ebner, who plays sparingly in the secondary but occupies a number of roles on special teams. “Even though he has more experience in the kicking game than he does defensively, based on his college time and playing time with us as well, he showed a high level of instincts all the way around.”
As a case in point, Belichick cites Ebner’s role as personal protector on the punt team, which entails a thorough understanding of the opposition’s schemes and game’s situations. Belichick also notes Ebner’s skills making blocks on returns and beating them in coverage.
“All those things he does at a high level,” Belichick says. “For a player who hasn’t had a lot of football playing experience, he does them very well. I think he definitely has a natural feel for it. Certainly film study and the coaches’ preparation and so forth can add to that, but he has a lot of that just naturally on his own. It’s been impressive.”
When alluding to Ebner’s inexperience, Belichick means it. Literally.
Ebner never played high school football before making the Buckeyes as a walk-on midway through his collegiate career. Instead he was a rising national rugby star, representing the United States in various international tournaments, including the 2008 Junior World Championships.
Eventually awarded a scholarship, Ebner lettered three times for Ohio State, making almost all of his 30 tackles in 36 career games covering kicks and punts. But when the Buckeyes staged their pro-day workouts for scouts, Ebner ran a 4.55-second, 40-yard dash and completed the so-called three-cone drill in 6.59 seconds.
He was fast, agile and — as a three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree — intelligent.
Those smarts, combined with a fundamental base established on the rugby pitch, have enabled Ebner to make up for lost time on the football field. The nature of his former sport — played sans helmet and pads — forced him to become a sure tackler. Meanwhile, his nature as a quick learner has helped him to overcome the vast differences between the two games.
“Being around a sport where you have to tackle and run down a guy with a ball, and there are certain zones and things like that,” Ebner replied, when ask how rugby correlates to football. “There are a lot of open-field tackles in that game. Sometimes I’m in position where I’ve got to make open-field tackles and it definitely converts. (But) I wouldn’t call it the same by any stretch. There are a lot of different aspects of it.
“I wouldn’t say I was particularly great at (making what appear instinctive football plays) in the beginning. I had to learn like everyone else. I had to fast-track it, as you know. It’s definitely something that I’ve grown with along the way and I try to get better at it every day in practice.”
Ebner has created his niche in an organization that places a premium on football’s often-overlooked third dimension, starting with Belichick, who was a special teams coach long before he became a head coach.
“I’ve always had a great appreciation for the kicking game,” he said last Wednesday, harkening back to his youth in Annapolis. “I think that I was fortunate that when I grew up Coach (Wayne) Hardin was the coach at Navy. He emphasized the kicking game a lot.
“I think it’s one of the great things about football (that) it brings that third element to the game besides offense and defense. It adds the kicking game, the specialists, all the different rules and strategical situations that can occur on kickoffs, punts and field goals and fakes and all those kind of things; field-position plays. I think that’s an integral part of the game.”
Made even more important this time of year, when conditions sour and stakes rise. Take their recent win over Buffalo, as the Patriots’ Matthew Slater did in describing the importance of two long kickoff returns by teammate LeGarrette Blount.
“In a game like (the Buffalo win) when the weather was bad, and maybe it’s harder to move the ball than usual, those plays are big for us,” said Slater, whose excellence on special teams in 2013 earned him a third straight Pro Bowl invitation. “And as you move forward in the playoffs, big plays like that can make the difference in the game.”
There were no mishaps over Wild Card Weekend. But as the Divisional Playoff round nears, no team knows better, for the wrong reasons, than the San Francisco 49ers.
Two years ago in a soggy NFC Championship Game, they had a Super Bowl berth first elude them and later slip from their grasps. Leading the Giants, 17-14, early in the fourth quarter, San Francisco returner Kyle Williams failed to avoid a punt that caromed off his leg and was recovered by New York to set up a go-ahead score. Then in overtime, Williams fumbled while returning another punt to position the Giants for a game-winning field goal.
Last year the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl, where they fell far behind Baltimore only to rally within 34-31 and fall short at the end. One of the key plays to force them into a deficit that ultimately proved insurmountable was an NFL postseason-record 108-yard kickoff return by Raven Jacoby Jones.
Such dramatic swings on special teams lead to what Belichick terms “bonus points.” In the postseason, where outcomes figure to be closely-contested, any scoring, especially when it’s a bonus, is invaluable.
“Everything has to get better. The level of competition has gone up tremendously and we have to prepare for that in every aspect of the game,” Ebner says. “I think special teams is also a part of that. We’ve got to continue to do what we’ve practiced to do and get better on, and understand the competition level is just going to go up.”
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.