Whether Its Punting, Kicking, Coverage Or Returns, New England Does It A Lot Better Than Philadelphia

By Steve Silverman
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No area of football receives more lip service than special teams.

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When head coaches talk about that aspect of the game, you can almost hear the words before they come out of their collective mouths.

“When it comes to this game, it will be decided by the three phases — offense, defense and special teams. Any one of these area could decide the outcome.”

Yet, in reality, few head coaches really pay much attention to special teams. Their focus is on the individual matchups on offense and defense. They leave it up to actual special teams coaches to handle almost every decision that needs to be made concerning game preparation.

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Whether to try an onside kick, a late field goal or the decision to go for it on fourth down are the exceptions as a head coach will often take over at critical moments on game day. But personnel decision are left to men like Joe Judge of the New England Patriots and Dave Fipp of the Philadelphia Eagles.

If Super Bowl LII happens to come down to special teams, the Patriots should have a significant advantage.

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New England has been one of the most consistent teams in the league when it comes to punt and kickoff differential, and has long been excellent in the kicking game. They are almost always among the top-five teams in the special teams rankings, and that is once again the case this year, as they sit third, according to Football Outsiders.

While the Eagles have had a spectacular season, their special teams play has been ordinary as they rank just 16th. This is somewhat surprising, considering the Eagles have regularly ranked much higher than that.

Ryan Allen

Patriots punter Ryan Allen is seen in action against the Jets during the second half at MetLife Stadium on Oct. 15, 2017. New England won 24-17. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

In the AFC title game, special teams made a huge difference for the Pats, as left-footed punter Ryan Allen continually punted them out of trouble against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

It was particularly true during the second half as the Patriots, despite trailing well into the fourth quarter, opted to punt from at or near midfield on several short-yardage occasions, even though fans were groaning over the decision to give the Jags possession.

Yet Allen’s punts pinned the Jaguars at the 9- and 10-yard lines. When Jacksonville was forced to punt late in the fourth quarter from deep in its own end, Danny Amendola returned a Brad Nortman kick 20 yards to the Jags’ 30.

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That return set up Tom Brady’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Amendola that proved decisive in New England’s 24-20 victory.

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Allen does not have the strongest leg among punters, as he averaged 43.4 yards this season and his net average of 40.5 yards was slightly below average (18th of the 32 that qualified). However, Allen does extremely well when he is punting at or near midfield and attempting to drop his kicks inside the opponent’s 20. He did that on 24 occasions this season.

Not only does Allen do that with regularity, he also excels at direction punting. He can deliver the ball to the left, center and right, and his ability to move returners around and make them catch the ball on the move helps his coverage teams.

“These games when teams are so evenly matched, to be able to have a guy that’s going to really help swing that field-position battle in your favor, it’s huge because every yard counts,’’ Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater said. “You see that in a lot of these games.”

In addition to Allen, kicker Stephen Gostkowski is almost always going to get the job done. He made 37 of 40 field-goal attempts during the regular season. He has occasionally mixed extra points, but the Patriots score so much, the mistakes have not hurt them.

Dion Lewis has proven dangerous as a kickoff returner, and Amendola is fearless as a punt returner.

The Eagles are quite average when it comes to their return game, but they don’t allow many big returns, either.

Rookie kicker Jake Elliott has had his moments this season, making 26 of 31 field-goal tries. One of those kicks was a 61-yarder in Week 3 that beat the Giants, a big sign that nerves do not interfere with his execution.

Elliott further burnished that reputation by making five of his six attempts from at least 50 yards.

Donnie Jones, another left-footer, averaged 45.3 yards per punt, along with a 40.6 net, but he does not move the ball around as well as Allen.

The Patriots are often willing to assume a conservative strategy when their fans want them to go for it, and that has helped them control field position. Their experience in high-pressure games has helped their decision-making with special teams.

That could become a decisive factor in Super Bowl LII.

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