February 02, 2017
By Justin Lasher
Yesterday we covered the guys making plays on the offensive side of the ball. Today, we take a glimpse at the guys that are tasked with covering those offensive playmakers. In addition to breaking down the New England secondary, I will also give you all the information you need to know about the Patriots special teams group. If Super Bowl LI is a close game come 4th quarter on Sunday, the winner very well may be decided by these two position groups.
New England’s secondary, in my opinion, is quietly, one of the best in the NFL. I am not saying they can complete with the likes of Denver and even Houston’s secondary groups, but I do believe they are much better than their numbers indicate. This group is full of playmakers that always come up big in big moments and find a way to make a play. Key contributors in New England’s secondary are Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Malcolm Butler, Patrick Chung, and Eric Rowe. This group ranked 15th in during the regular season in interceptions with 13. While this may not seem great, I believe this number can lie. It is hard to identify game situations in which an interception was made, and the impact it had on the outcome of the game. This is a unit that knows when to step up their coverage and make a play to give the ball back to their offense. This unit, in two playoff games, has 4 interceptions, with three of those coming in the Houston game, when their offense wasn’t playing particularly well.
One of the biggest strengths of the Patriots’ secondary is that they know how to tackle and limit yards after the catch. Logan Ryan and Patrick Chung ranked 8th and 9th respectively, in tackles amongst all defensive backs during the regular season. This will be huge against the Falcons on Sunday, as they will need to wrap up and bring down bigger receivers like Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu as soon as they catch the ball. A guy who we haven’t talked about yet, but is probably the best defender the Patriots have, is Malcolm Butler. Butler prides himself on finding the ball in all situations. He was third during the regular season among defensive backs in fumble recoveries. Whether the ball is in the air, or on the ground, Butler is a guy I want on my team to make the play.
The Patriots have another guy in their secondary that is absolutely lighting it up during the playoffs. Logan Ryan has 16 tackles in two games to go along with 1 sack and 1 interception. He also leads all defensive backs in the playoffs with 5 passes defended. If Matt Ryan and company are going to have success throwing the football on Sunday, they will have to certainly earn it.
This is the third facet of a game that is a lot more valuable than often gets credit for. From Punting, to kicking field goals, to returning punts and kickoffs, the special teams group is very valuable to a team. Field position, especially later in games is very critical. We’ve seen Super Bowl games won on last minute field goals. Can you pin your opponent’s offense deep in their own territory to put added pressure on them? All these questions are answered by the play of a special teams unit. The New England Patriots have historically been able to make great plays and win key games because of special teams play.
The first area of special teams we will be looking at is punting. The Patriots punter is Ryan Allen. Allen had a decent year when called upon for New England. Of his 72 punts, only 27 were returned, for a total of 134 yards. That’s an average of just under 5 yards per returned punt. A key stat in the punting game, is the ability to down a punt inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. 32% of Ryan Allen’s punts were downed inside the 20 this year. That will certainly come into play during this game as you don’t want to give Matt Ryan “free” yards. A punter is also measured on his net average of yards on punts. For the Patriots, Allen had tremendous success in this category in 2016. He ranked 7th among punters with 41.4 net yardage on all punts.
The other key ingredient to a great kicking group is the field goal kicker. For the Patriots, they have one of the better kickers in the game in Stephen Gostkowski. Gostkowski successfully connected on 27 of his 32 field goal attempts. He was terrific from 40-49 yards out, having made 9 of 10 from this range. He has increased his percentage of made field goals in the playoffs, and is a perfect 5 for 5. Gostkowski has been money in the bank with extra points. While other kickers have struggled at times, he has made 46 of 49 extra points during the regular season, and is 7 of 8 in the playoffs. It’s the time of year where points are valuable, and a must have whenever you have an opportunity, and that’s what you get with Stephen Gostkowski, guaranteed points.
The third and final area of special teams that will serve critical for Sunday’s game is the kick returner and punt returner. New England has turned to sure handed Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman to cover these duties for them in the playoffs. There are no better two decision makers at this position than these two. In two playoff games, Lewis has 4 kick returns for a total of 142 yards, or, 35.5 yards per return and a touchdown. Edelman has 4 punt returns in the playoffs for 26 yards and 5 fair catches. With Lewis and Edelman, the Patriots don’t have to worry about a guy making a bad decision and costing them yardage, as these two know the drill and are seasoned veterans this time of year.