Poor Patriots special teams condemn them to Buffalo again


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There have only been six kickoff return touchdowns scored in the 2022-23 NFL season. The Patriots gave up three.

Nyheim Hines became the first NFL player to return two kickoff returns for touchdowns in the same game since Leon Washington accomplished the feat with the Seahawks in 2010 – and only the 11th player in history of the NFL to achieve such a feat. (Photo by: Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

When it comes to identifying the hallmarks of a Patriot dynasty that spanned two decades, a lot of sentiment tends to start with a certain signal calling — and for good reason.

But an underrated strength of this franchise for years has been its excellent special teams play – with this unit’s execution, attention to detail and game intelligence regularly tipping the momentum into favor of New England when these opportunities arise.

Not only did this group launch many successful drives and chances through much-needed breakaway recovery, but they also earned a reputation as a special teams outfit that made things difficult for the opposition.

Beyond simply pinning teams on their own side of the field on kickoffs and punts, the Patriots have rarely given up big play streaks to opponents – with New England only allowing six kickoff return touchdowns from 2000 to 2022.

But this season the wheels fell off for this Patriots special teams squad – culminating in a season-ending loss on Sunday in which New England gave up two kickoff return TDs to the Bills en route. to a 12-point loss at Highmark Stadium.

“It’s hard to deal with,” Matthew Slater said of the Patriots’ special teams play after Sunday’s 35-23 loss to the Bills. “I’ve been playing this game for a long time. I’ve never been part of anything like this. So obviously it’s very disappointing. As captain of this unit, I feel like we cost the team the game. So it was very difficult. »

While lapses in execution are inevitable during the few seconds of chaos that erupt on the gridiron during kick returns, the Patriots have been burned time and time again this season due to poor tackles, containment of poor quality and an unusual lack of situational awareness.

In total, there have been just six kickoff return touchdowns scored all year in the 2022-23 NFL season – and special teams coordinator Cameron Achord and the Patriots have given up three of these hits.

What was a storybook start for the Bills just minutes after honoring Damar Hamlin looked more like the same tired scenario for New England special teams personnel on Sunday – with Bills running back Nyheim Hines kicking off sending home 96 yards and sending more than 70,000 Bills fans into a frenzy.

It wasn’t the only time Hines energized the home crowd in Orchard Park, NY thanks to lackluster Patriots play.

While New England managed to weather the storm early – eventually taking a 17-14 lead over Buffalo at 7:06 into the third quarter – Hines put Buffalo back in the lead on the next play, avoiding Myles Bryant and taking the kick-off fell back 101 yards to give the home side a lead they did not relinquish.

Hines became the first NFL player to return two kickoff returns for touchdowns in the same game since Leon Washington accomplished the feat with the Seahawks in 2010.

Of course, the Patriots’ special teams unit was hampered by injury on Sunday, with Brenden Schooler inactive with a hip injury and DaMarcus Mitchell later ruled out of the game with a head injury.

But Slater wasn’t going to make excuses, not when a good tackle at critical times in those streaks could have taken 12 points off the board for the Bills.

“We just haven’t done a good enough job using our hands and getting out of the blocks,” Slater said. “It comes down to fundamentals. You have to be able to get rid of a block, you have to be able to diagnose a return and avoid the ball and we just didn’t do that. It was very disappointing that he appeared in this setting. You just feel like you let the team down, and that was very disappointing.

The offseason promises to be busy for the Patriots, in particular with the multiple cases of regression observed in the offensive unit of New England.

And yet, while much (justified) criticism has been leveled at Matt Patricia and the structure of New England’s offensive coaching staff, one has to think that Achord and the Patriots’ special teams unit must also undergo a major overhaul.

Boston

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