FOXBORO — A legalized, 40-yard fistfight.
That’s the phrase that Patriots safety Patrick Chung used to best describe the art of special teams. After a year where New England’s special teams struggled to make an impact, Chung (who said his special teams coach at Oregon came up with the description) and the rest of his teammates have put those words into action through the early stages of the 2010 season.
Through the preseason and regular-season opener against the Bengals last Sunday, a renewed sense of physicality and aggression have been the calling cards of the New England special teams unit. That was evident on the first special teams tackle of the new season, when Kyle Arrington and Tracy White crunched Bengals kick returner man Bernard Scott even before Scott hit his own 20-yard line.
And while there’s no special teams captain this season, few players have made as much of an impact thus far as the hard-hitting Chung, who has a simple philosophy behind the turnaround.
“No matter what you call it, it’s all about executing. Period,” said the second-year safety. “We can have fakes, we can have straight ahead runs. If you execute and everybody works together, everything will be fine. That goes for any team. Not just us.”
For a franchise that prides itself on peerless special teams play, 2009 was a bad season. While kicker Stephen Gostkowski had a good year (he was actually named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week midway through the season), the rest was lacking. Punter Chris Hanson was in the middle to bottom of every major punting category. Ditto for the punt and kick return units, who tried a variety of candidates for both jobs but were unable to find a consistent presence.
Things bottomed out one year ago this week in a road loss to the Jets. On a day where the Patriots needed a pick-me-up from their special teamers, the group wasn’t able to deliver in a 16-9 loss. Gostkowski’s performance aside (3-for-3 on field goal attempts), it was an abomination. That afternoon, Hanson had a net punting average of just 29.3 yards. New England had just three total yards on punt returns, and eight of their 11 drives on the afternoon started inside at their own 25-yard line or worse.
In addition, they allowed what was likely the play of the game: a 43-yard kick return from Leon Washington at the start of the third quarter that electrified the Jets crowd and started the momentum swing back over to New York. And special teamers Hanson (delay of game), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (illegal block above the waist) and Sam Aiken (facemask) all picked up bad penalties.
This year has been a far different situation. After going all of 2009 without a kick return for touchdown, the Patriots have gotten two kick returns for touchdowns already from Brandon Tate (one in the preseason and one in the opener against Cincinnati), and had an average starting position of their own 36-yard line against the Bengals. And while Gostkowski missed a pair of deep field goals, the Pro Bowler did have three touchbacks on kickoffs.The performance against the Bengals was a point of pride for the special teamers.
“Oh, yeah. Especially coming into the first game, with Pacman [Jones], Bernard Scott, [Jordan] Shipley … they have pretty good returners,” Arrington said. “I think we really just bought into the game plan and really just did a good job of trying to take away that phase of the game.”
Arrington, a cornerback and special teams gunner, said there have been some changes from last season, including some different looks.
“We’ve run a few different schemes here and there so far,” said Arrington, who had 17 special teams tackles in eight games last season. “But it’s early, too. As teams watch us on film, they’re going to scout us and come up with their own game plans that we’re going to have to come up with some new things. But it’s definitely early. We’ve definitely run a few different schemes so far.”
There’s also been some changes in personnel. Sam Aiken, last year’s special teams captain, was released before the start of the season, and it appears that Chung has taken on many of his old responsibilities. They drafted first-round pick Devin McCourty (cornerback and kick returner) and fifth-round choice Zoltan Mesko (punter) for special teams coach Scott O’Brien, and both have already made an instant impact on special teams.
They also imported a handful of new players who have a productive special teams history, including White, a linebacker who made his bones as a special teamer with Seattle, Jacksonville, Green Bay and Philadelphia before landing with the Patriots just before the beginning of the 2010 season.
“Right now, I only played one game with these guys, but it’s the best special teams I’ve been on — there are a lot of fast guys,” White said. “In other years when I was on different teams, I was the fastest guy on the special teams, but now, there are four other guys around here who are as fast as me or faster. They make it easier.
“The coach, he puts the guys in the right spot. So it helps me out a lot. It’s really, really aggressive and smart, smart special teams crew. I give credit to Scotty O. He’s a great special teams coach.”