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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Great special teams another credit in Belichick legacy

The New England Patriots’ special teams come to Buffalo this week on a roll.

They returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and scored on a blocked punt return in their 38-31 win over the Chicago Bears.

What else is new?

On the long list of reasons why Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time is this: his special teams record.

The Patriots have ranked among the top half of the league on special teams 10 straight years, according to The Dallas Morning News annual ranking. They were in the top six in six of the last eight years. They were No. 1 in 2010 and 2013.

The record is another example of how no stone gets left unturned in Belichick’s regime – as if the Bills didn’t already have enough to worry about in trying to defend Tom Brady & Co.

The reason for the success?

“Well I think No. 1, the head coach cares,” said current Texans special teams coach Brad Seely in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News. Seely was Belichick’s highly respected special teams chief from 1999 to 2008.

“He’s gonna find personnel to help the special teams coach,” Seely said. “He did that when I was there. We always had good players ... good players make good coaches. I was always appreciative of the emphasis he put on it, and it’s a big emphasis there.”

Belichick’s affinity for special teams goes way back. His first NFL coaching position was as a special teams assistant in Denver in 1978. He was special teams coordinator as well as linebackers coach with the New York Giants from 1979 to ’84.

He likes to talk special teams. Here was an answer he gave at a news conference in 2015 about the complicated task of filling special teams depth charts:

“You don’t go into the game thinking about losing two guys at the same position,” Belichick said. “When that happens, that’s a difficult situation. And particularly in the kicking game, because now you’re talking about that’s 66 players on special teams. Kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return, field goal, field goal rush – that’s 66 players. That means you have to have 66 backups. I mean, you’ve got to have it. So, this guy is out on this team, who is going in for him? You’ve got to have somebody. It might be the same guy for five positions, but you’ve got to have somebody. OK, now you lose two guys at the same spot, again two anything – two safeties, two corners, two linebackers, two whatever they are – and they’re going to be playing the same players in the kicking game.

“People don’t realize how difficult it is to just manage the roster in the kicking game because there are a lot of guys you can just eliminate from special teams. You don’t see any offensive linemen on the kickoff team, you don’t see any defensive linemen on the kickoff team, you don’t see any quarterbacks, other than the kicker and the punter. ... You start looking at 66 spots, and then who backs those 66 spots up and then who’s behind them?”

The Pats were third on special teams last year. The Bills ranked seventh. (As an aside, Bills coach Sean McDermott has shown he values special teams by some of the end-of-the-roster decisions he has made, keeping guys like Andre Holmes, Taiwan Jones, Lafayette Pitts and Julian Stanford.)

Belichick traded a fifth-round pick to Oakland in March for Cordarrelle Patterson and committed to the receiver’s $3 million salary. His 30.4-yard kickoff return average is No. 2 all-time, and he scored his sixth career kick return TD last week.

“I’m a playmaker, man,” Patterson said. “I hold myself accountable as the best kickoff returner in the league. That’s what I stand for. So every time I’m out there I be aggressive and approach it as it’s my last.”

The Pats’ kick coverage team also will challenge the Bills, even though New England has had three poor coverage games and ranks last in return average allowed. New England likes to force returns, rather than routinely kicking out of the end zone. Last year the Pats put 35 kickoffs between the 1 and 10, tops in the NFL. This year they rank seventh in percentage of kickoffs that are returned (45.5 percent).

Another bit of trivia: Belichick has exclusively employed left-footed punters in his Pats tenure, except for some fill-ins required by injury. Lefty Corey Bojorquez was plucked by the Bills from the Pats. (Belichick has maintained it’s a coincidence.) Left-footed kicks, of course, spin counterclockwise and present an extra challenge for return men.

Way back with the Giants, Buffalo great Phil McConkey was New York’s stellar punt returner. Before the rare games when the Giants would face a left-footed punter, Belichick would have quarterback Phil Simms punt to McConkey in practice. Simms was right-handed, but punted with his left foot and was competent at it.

Iron men: Brady, 41, has not missed a single game due to injury in the past 10 years, since he sat out 2008 with a knee injury. Has anyone ever been so durable into their 40s? Yes. Hall of Famers Jim Marshall and Bruce Matthews never missed a game in their careers, through ages 42 and 40, respectively. Brett Favre never missed one from age 24 to age 41, until he sat out a game his final season. Jerry Rice never missed a game from age 36 through 42.

The 30,000-foot view: Brady is 228-67 as a starter, the most wins in history by any player and the best win percentage by a QB in the Super Bowl era. Peyton Manning is second in QB wins at 200. ... Brady’s 5-3 in the Super Bowl. Some say Joe Montana, at 4-0, has a better big-game record. It’s a bogus comparison. Montana’s teams were knocked out of the playoffs seven times (and three as the favorite) before they got to the Super Bowl. ... The Pats lost defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to the Lions and technically did not replace him. Linebackers coach Brian Flores, in his 11th year on Belichick’s staff, took over play-calling duties but didn’t get the coordinator title. The same thing happened in 2011. Patricia took over but didn’t get the title until the next year.

Weak link: Speed at linebacker. The linebacking corps of Dont’a Hightower, Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy is stout vs. the run but isn’t as good in pass coverage against top running backs. The Pats are 25th in the NFL vs. the pass. Even the run-first Chicago Bears took a page out of the Kansas City playbook and dropped back 58 times, compared with 19 called runs (no surprise since Chicago’s Matt Nagy came from the Chiefs).

Matchup watch

 

Rob Gronkowski vs. Micah Hyde. Nobody attacks the middle of the field better than Brady and the Patriots. Gronkowski, battling a sore back, is a Bills killer, with 66 catches for 1,027 yards and 12 TDs in 13 games. With Gronkowski out last week, Dwayne Allen played 55 snaps but didn’t have a catch.

(The above video clip is an example of how the Patriots manipulate linebackers to give Brady open windows to throw to Gronkowski. Not only was it a play-action fake, but guard Joe Thuney pulled to further sell the run and get the Lions linebackers to step up.)

Trey Flowers vs. Bills tackles. Flowers is the Pats’ best defensive lineman, and he’s an all-around force. He had 6.5 sacks last year and has 2.0 this year. He’s ranked No. 6 among edge defenders against the run this year by Pro Football Focus. Flowers will move around on the line and split his snaps between the left and right sides almost equally, depending on the matchup the Pats want.

Stephon Gilmore vs. Kelvin Benjamin. The Pats are largely a man coverage team. Somebody on offense needs to win one-on-one matchups. Gilmore had a shaky start to the 2017 season due to communication issues but played very well down the stretch and had a key INT in the AFC final. He's a key to the Pats' defense.

Stats for the road: Brady had 84 300-yard passing games. The Bills have 76 in their history and 25 since 2001. Brady has 15 games in which he has thrown for 300 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. The Bills have two in franchise history (by Joe Ferguson and Drew Bledsoe).

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