FOXBORO, MA – You would be correct if you were to point to the play of players like Tom Brady, LeGarrette Blount and Malcolm Butler and use those as barometers to indicate how far the New England Patriots would be able to go in the 2016 season. While doing so, you might be keen to keep your eyes on players like Ryan Allen, Shea McClellin, Matthew Slater and Cyrus Jones, with those players possibly having the same effect on the outcome of the Patriots at season’s end. If tonight’s special teams performance was any indication, it might be a wild ride between now and the end of January for Pats fans, with the end result of that rollercoaster whip-around very much up in the air.
In Monday night’s clash against the Baltimore Ravens, New England’s special teams unit set up the first points of the game as well as produced a jaw-dropping, momentum-changing play that few in this corner of the American football world had ever seen before. It also committed a series of errors – some in The Benny Hill Show class of slapstick – in a very short period of time later on that almost cost the team the game and the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.
First, the good…and there was a lot of good. After New England’s second consecutive three-and-out, Allen’s punt was downed at the one-yard line by the combination of Jonathan Jones and special teams ace Matthew Slater. One play later, defensive tackle Malcolm Brown broke through the Ravens’ offensive line to tackle running back Kenneth Dixon in the end zone for a safety and give the Patriots a 2-0 advantage.
If gunners running down and killing the ball before reaching the goal line was the appetizer, what McClellin ended up doing at the end of the Ravens’ next drive was the filet mignon main course. On a 34-yard field goal attempt by Baltimore to try and take its first lead, McClellin, using a running start, leaped over long snapper Morgan Cox at the snap like the great Olympic hurdling champion Edwin Moses and then smothered Justin Tucker’s kick, the first miss of the All-Pro kicker’s season after 28 consecutive makes. New England would capitalize, as Blount scored on a one-yard run to cap off a 10-play drive to give New England a 9-0 advantage.
McClellin’s leap of faith, while shocking as it was to see come to pass, was the product of, you guessed it, coaching and preparation, with Belichick having no equal when it comes to scouting and game planning.
“Shea’s pretty athletic,” Belichick said in the postgame press conference. “He timed it up perfectly and made a good, clean jump and a good, clean block. [Special teams coach] Joe Judge did a great job of designing the play. We workedon it all week and just felt like we could take advantage of that and Shea really executed it perfectly, as did the guys up front. Malcolm [Brown] and Alan [Branch] were charging in a way to kind of keep the pad level down for the field goal team so we could get through there.” When asked if he had ever pulled off a play like that before, McClellin replied, “No, never. I never have.”
Not only was that Tucker’s first miss field goal attempt of the 2016 season, it was also his first miss in over a calendar year, dating back to a Nov. 22, 2015 home game against the St. Louis Rams.
“It looked like they timed our snap and [McClellin] made a hell of a play,” Tucker said. “I don’t know what happens in their meetings but the guy made a good play of the ball.”
As it turned out, McClellin’s play made up for an error he had committed earlier in the first quarter, and on special teams no less; He accidentally slid into the football on an Allen punt that was bouncing inside the 15-yard line, propelling the ball through the goal line for a touchback.
While the Patriots offense was moving the ball up-and-down on the top-rated defense in the National Football League, opening up a 23-3 lead in the third quarter in the process, the ugly side of the special teams showed up right on time for the Ravens to get back in the contest. Rookie return specialist Cyrus Jones, who already had fumbled or muffed four kicks on the season, decided to track the bouncing ball from a Sam Koch punt despite having no intention of fielding it. Unfortunately for Jones, the ball ended up bouncing off of his foot, rolling to the three-yard line before the Ravens record. Joe Flacco threw a touchdown pass to Darren Waller for Baltimore’s first touchdown of the game.
On the ensuing kickoff, Belichick still sent out Jones to return, but also sent out Slater, the special teams whiz and five-time Pro Bowler to provide a steadying force. Slater received the kick…and then fumbled on the return. Baltimore recovered at New England’s 22, then scored four plays later on a Flacco eight-yard toss to running back Kenneth Dixon.
New England’s offense and defense had made this game into a rout. Its special teams turned it back into a game once again.
“You work so hard to execute on game day, and to come out and not execute, especially me personally, it’s very disappointing,” said Slater, who’s one of the Patriots’ captains and has been a captain for six consecutive seasons. “Thankfully, we won the game and, hopefully, we come here tomorrow and this week and try to work on those ball security issues we’ve had.”
Jones’ propensity for errors in the kicking game would have led us to believe Belichick wouldn’t have a long leash with the team’s top draft pick from this season, but his decision to put him back in to possibly return a kick after his muff let the Ravens back in the game clearly shows how much potential Belichick thinks Jones, one of the top return men in college while at the University of Alabama, possesses. Not surprisingly, instead of calling out Jones, Belichick went with the more pragmatic approach when addressing Jones’ foibles and the special teams altogether.
“Well, we turned over the ball three times tonight,” Belichick said. “Three situations that all I would say are pretty preventable. We’ve just got to do a better job of taking care of the ball than we did tonight, and that’s everybody that handles it.”
“It’s everybody’s responsibility to protect the ball who handles it and we’ve just got to do a better job of it,” Belichick continued. “We’ve got to coach it better. We’ve got to handle it better.”
Belichick might have been speaking about the entire team, but he, and everyone involved with the Patriots, knows that tonight’s special teams performance could very well be what puts New England over the top once again…or dooms them to playoff disappointment once more. Let the ride continue.