Thursday, September 9, 2010

2010 Preview: Special Teams & Coaching

The final factors in how the Patriots will do this year are special teams and coaching.  So as a follow-up to my posts on the 2010 offense and defense, here is a breakdown of the Patriots special teams and coaching changes and projections for the upcoming season.

Arrivals and Departures

Regarding special teams players, say "bye-bye" to Chris Hanson, replaced as both punter and place kick holder by rookie Zoltan Mesko.  It also appears that Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk won't be returning punts anymore, letting younger players Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate take on those roles.

Replacing Hanson was inevitable; he ranked 36th in punting in a 32 team league last year, so he had to go.  Mesko had one difficult pre-season game punting (27.2 yards a kick against the Rams), but overall is a vast improvement at the position.  He also handled the kick placement duties well, and even had a few punts downed inside the 10 yard line.

Welker's injury made it equally inevitable that he would not be returning kicks this year.  Edelman showed nifty moves in tight quarters on a few returns this pre-season, and Tate took one the distance and notched several other long kickoff returns.  So overall, it looks like the special teams are improved.

As for coaching changes, the Patriots finally parted company with Dean Pees, the supposed defensive coordinator who basically implemented what Belichick told him.  BB named no replacement for Pees, although Matt Patricia is widely viewed as the de facto DC.  They also let got of their two tight end coaches, Pete Mangurian and Shane Waldron, and reportedly installed Brian Ferentz to coach that position.

Pees departure will only be a positive if Belichick trusts Patricia enough to manage the defense on game days, and frankly it isn't clear that is the case.  If he doesn't trust Matt, Bill will spend too much time on defense and not enough overseeing the entire team on Sundays -- and that won't be much of a change from past years.

The team needed to upgrade the tight end coaching.  They've gotten just about zero production from that position for years, and they wear out slot receivers (e.g. Troy Brown and Wes Welker) trying to compensate.  If the pre-season is any indication, this change will pay huge dividends -- the two rookies look really good, Hernandez as a receiver and Gronkowski as a well-rounded tight end.  And even stalwart Alge Crumpler made some noise when he got on the field.

All in all, the coaching changes are positive; just not sure how positive yet.

Gostkowski Somehow Gets Even Better

The only things that is essentially the same in the pre-season as they are in the regular season are kickoffs, extra points, and field goals (note: not kickoff coverage, just kickoffs themselves).  Not a lot of mixing and matching new long snappers or holders -- what you see in the exhibition games is what you get when the games count.

So it was great to see that Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski was even *better* this pre-season than he was last year.  About 28% of his kickoffs were not returned (and a few others should not have been), bettering his best year by 7%, and the return yards against him got lower and lower with each pre-season game.

His field goals appear to be much more down the middle (save the one that hit the goal post and went through), although three attempts is a small sample size.  Last year he sported his lowest field goal percentage, and even though he is the most accurate kicker in Patriots history it was nice to see his place kicks stay down the middle.

Now if he could just improve his tackling technique, he'd be the perfect kicker.  (Note: if you don't get that reference, you don't watch the pre-season as obsessively as I do.)

Great Scott!

Many people around here hold a soft spot in their hearts for all players and coaches who helped the Patriots win those three Super Bowls.  But even so, it was probably time to replace Brad Seeley when he voluntarily left the team after the 2008 season.  His special teams coaching was crucial in the 2001 Super Bowl run, but it was time for some new ideas in that phase of the game.

Enter Scott O'Brien, who instilled an aggressive attitude in his coverage teams that led to forced turnovers early in the 2009 campaign.  With a full off-season to implement his system (for which he won awards and praise in Cleveland, Carolina, and Denver), you can expect a better return game and better kick coverage.

All the attitude aside, O'Brien shows great attention to detail and the ability to coach players in the finer points.  For example, rookie punter Zoltan Mesko had a bad game against St. Louis, but with coaching from O'Brien he got things straightened out for the final pre-season game, with two kicks downed inside the 20 and an improved average.

He also oversaw the transition from long snapping veteran Lonie Paxton to rookie Jake Ingram last year... and Ingram was actually *better* than Paxton, delivering nothing but perfect long snaps all year.

So don't forget when you see big returns by Brandon Tate or Julian Edleman, or perhaps a long field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, that O'Brien is the man behind the curtain.

Making a Difference-Maker

Everyone knows that when the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, they got just enough offense to compliment a stingy defense.  But what they also got was plays on special teams.  In their 2001 AFC Championship Game, they had both a punt return and a blocked field goal return for touchdowns.  And that was a week after Adam Vinatieri's miracle kick in the snow.

It has been a while since special teams did much for them in the post-season, or helped them get there in the first place.  But with a new-ish coach and new returners, this year could be different.  Julian Edelman had a nifty 40 yard punt return through traffic, and Brandon Tate outran everyone for a 97 yard kickoff return touchdown.

Add to that the improved distance on Gostkowski's kickoffs and much improved punting from Mesko, and special teams could be an actual weapon for the Patriots this year.  It's been a while, but it could help cover a lot of issues while the inexperienced defense gets its bearings.  Never hurts to get a short field for your offense or force the other team to drive a long field.


Definite improvement in the punting and return games; though there were some hiccups in kick coverage, and no turnovers in the pre-season.  But overall I think Gostkowski will be more accurate and his kickoffs will be longer, and Mesko is a fine replacement for Chris Hanson, so this unit will be improved in 2010.

As for coaching, no guarantees.  The new tight ends coach has a lot to work with, and it all looks good so far.  However, if Belichick can't trust someone to manage the defense on game day, that will hurt all other aspects of the team on Sundays.  Last year they had a lot of issues with clock management and personnel groupings, both of which are problems they rarely had in the past.  And that comes back to the head coach, who was probably busy with the defense when some of that happened.  He has enough to handle during the game without having to diagram Xs and Os when Matt Patricia should be doing it.

If Bill can let go, then we'll see significant improvement.  If not, it'll be more modest improvement.  But improvement either way.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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