logoby Tyler Carter

In his post-game press conference, Bill Belichick was asked about the importance of the final score in preseason games:

“Well, I think certainly the score is relevant and that you played a game that way.  There is a lot of things we need to work on, on a play-by-play basis and teach and correct and coach on and improve on.  That is really the big part of it.  We have been on both ends of these kinds of games.  It is not a game on the standings.  It is a reflection on what happened on that particular night but there is still a lot of things that we can learn from on all those plays tonight and that is what we will try to do.”

Taking what Belichick said at face value, its clear that the organization views these exhibition contests as a sort of shakedown cruise.  The ‘things we need to work on’ clause moreso applies to players with a steep learning curve such as Matt Cassel Gutierrez, Shawn Crable and Matt Slater rather than Tom Brady, Mike Vrabel and Trey Hobbs, respectively.

And what are some of the things that need work?  For the second straight week, Coach Belichick identified the difference in the game (this week’s The Turning Point):

“…obviously giving up 14 points on returns in the first half put us pretty deep in the hole…”

Patriot fans are well aware of the importance of Special Teams (ST), including kickoff/punt coverage and returning.  Examples that hit close to home include Desmond Howard’s Super Bowl XXXI MVP performance (terrific archive footage BTW) and Troy Brown’s 2001 heroics (especially in the AFC Championship, which inspired Kordell Stewart to openly audition for a facial tissue endorsement).

The ST return specialist has risen in prominence over the last five seasons; here are some notable standouts (all statistics provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com):

Player: Dante Hall
Drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 5th round (153rd overall) of the 2000 Draft
Breakout Season: 2003
2003 Stats: 16.3 yards per punt return (YPPR), 25.9 yards per kick return (YPKR), 4 total touchdowns.  16.3 YPPR?  Disgusting.  His TD returns were spread across 4 consecutive games in 2003, causing many at the time to seriously consider him a dark horse MVP candidate.  Here’s his legendary, backbreaking, reverse-field punt return against Denver that year (sorry, no sound).

Player: Josh Cribbs
Signed as an undrafted free agent (UFA) by the Cleveland Browns in 2005
Breakout Season: 2007
2007 Stats: 13.5 YPPR, 30.7 YPKR, 3 total touchdowns.  How did this guy ever slip through the cracks?

Player: Devin Hester
Drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 2nd round (57th overall) of the 2006 Draft
Breakout Season(s): 2006 (rookie)
Career Stats: 14.1 YPPR, 23.2 YPKR, 11 total touchdowns.  La crème de la crème.  If Madden players would rather kick the ball (intentionally) out of bounds and give Chicago’s anemic offense the ball at the 40, opposing ST coaches would be wise to follow suit (under some circumstances).

In light of their game-changing potential, return specialists have seen their value increase dramatically (analogous to a nickel corner or slot receiver).  The Jets picked up Leon Washington with their 4th round pick back in 2006 (117th overall), and he made solid improvement during his second year in the role.  Hester has obviously paid dividends for Chicago.  The Dolphins drafted Ted Ginn, Jr. with the 9th overall pick in 2007, much to the chagrin of the Miami fan base.  Even with proven returners such as Hobbs, Welker and Faulk on the roster, the Patriots felt Slater was worth investing a 5th round pick.

Which brings us to Philadelphia’s rookie tandem of DeSean Jackson (2nd round, 49th overall) and Quintin Demps (4th round, 117th overall).  Their touchdown returns occurred 95 seconds apart (game time), and as Coach Belichick alluded to, put the Patriots ‘pretty deep in the hole’:

Situation: S.Gostkowski kicks 71 yards from NE 30 to PHI -1 (1:48)

Philadelphia Formation: Middle Return (Wedge)
Personnel: WR 19 Gasperson, RB 28 Buckhalter, S 29 Hunt, S 39 Demps (KR), LB 50 Boiman, LB 56 Jordan, C 59 Cole, WR 81 Avant, TE 87 B. Celek, TE 89 Schobel, DT 93 Laws (bolded players formed the ‘wedge’)

New England Formation: Middle Return
Personnel: K 3 Gostkowski, 15 WR Washington, WR 18 Slater, S 28 Spahn, S 30 Dillard, FB 44 Evans, S 47 Lynch, LB 48 Guyton, LB 52 Alexander, LB 91 Ruud, LB 98 Crable

Play summary: Quintin Demps fielded the kick a yard deep in his own endzone.  Heath Evans looked to be the ‘wedge buster’ as he was the first Patriot down the field, but he was met immediately by Trevor Laws.  Meanwhile, Coles and Celek double-teamed Guyton, which bunched up Ruud and created a lane for Demps.  Along the sideline, Boiman and Gasperson arguably got away with holding on picked up Crable and Slater respectively while Spahn overran the wedge despite coming down clean.  Backside pursuit was prevented by Avant and Jordan (the latter absolutely LEVELED Alexander).  Gostkowski attempted to make the tackle but couldn’t even hold up Demps long enough for help to arrive.

In a nutshell: Is <4 seconds considered poor hangtime for a kickoff?  By the time Demps received it no Patriot had crossed the 30, which seemed to give him and his blockers sufficient time to develop.  Spahn took a downright ‘bad pursuit angle’ (Randy Cross’s words, not mine).  Gostkowski ran all the way down to the Philadelphia 30 when perhaps he should have remained upfield to guard the sideline.

Situation: 4-13-NE 27 (:14)

Philadelphia Formation: 9 Man Picket
Personnel: WR 10 Jackson (PR), CB 21 Hanson, RB 28 Buckhalter, S 29 Hunt, S 30 Reed, S 39 Demps, LB 56 Jordan, C 59 Cole, WR 83 Lewis, WR 84 Baskett, TE 89 Schobel

New England Formation: Run and Shoot
Personnel: P 6 Hanson, 15 WR Washington (gunner), WR 18 Slater (gunner), S 36 Sanders (slot), FB 44 Evans (slot), S 41 Ventrone (protector), LB 51 Mayo (guard), LB 52 Alexander (tackle), LB 58 Woods (guard), C 66 Paxton (long snapper), TE 86 Thomas (tackle)

Play summary: Jackson received Hanson’s sideline punt at the 23, and with both gunners occupied he was able to turn up the middle unscathed.  On this return it was Alexander’s turn to absolutely LEVEL somebody, but unfortunately it happened to be teammate Pierre Woods (the only Patriot to lay a finger on Jackson).  After both were taken out of the play, it it was off to the races for the speedy rookie.

In a nutshell: If this were a coffin corner situation the play might have ended differently, but has anyone ever heard of, let alone seen, a 69 foot coffin?  An indefensible call with 14 seconds remaining in the half.  In addition to his great speed Jackson can cut on a dime; he made seasoned special teams vets such as Washington and Woods look dumbfounded in their pursuit angles.

Silver Lining: Larry Izzo was not involved on either play, nor were other ST stalwarts.  Mayo, Crable, Slater, Ruud, Guyton and Dillard are rookies (the latter two are UFAs), Spahn and Ventrone are bubble practice squad members and Lynch is a newcomer.  Since each team has to cut down to 75 players by Thursday, a few of these guys may not even be around for the final preseason game.  In summation, the personnel groups we saw on the field for these two plays are not representative of the final ST coverage units.  For those that stick around there’s plenty to work on, however, and some smarter play calling wouldn’t hurt either.