We conclude our tactical preview of Sunday’s Super Bowl with a look at the vital third component of each team – the special teams units.
‘Can you win a game on special teams?’ is one of the more interesting questions in the NFL. After all, everyone knows that a missed kick will easily lose you a game just as surely as a successful one will win you a game, but other than that just how important are they?
The logical place to start in answering that question is with the return men. Devin Hester will almost certainly go to the Hall of Fame purely on the basis of his ability to return kicks and punts. In his prime teams feared to land the ball anywhere close to him, and his reputation is still such that the Seahawks signed him to be their return guy for the playoffs after the Falcons cut him in Week 12 of the regular season. More recently, the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill has become the latest player that punters love to avoid.
The two teams playing in Super Bowl LI have very different approaches to this role. The Patriots feature something of a committee system, with Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Cyrus Jones sharing the roles. Amendola tends to deal with kick returns and Jones with punts, but only Edelman of the trio has ever actually returned either for a touchdown. Conversely, the Falcons are pretty much wedded to Eric Weems as their only returner, despite the fact that he’s only ever returned two touchdowns, both in 2010.
Comparing the two units, there is little to choose between the two. On average, the Patriots make about a yard more on both kick and punt returns, suggesting that the return game isn’t likely to be significant.
Returns aren’t all about yardage and touchdowns, though. They are about field position and here the Patriots have a slight edge. Matt Bosher averages two yards a punt more than his Patriot counterpart Ryan Allen. On the other hand, though, Atlanta then gives up more that five yards more after the punt than the Patriots do, largely due to the skill of New England’s special teams ace Matthew Slater in chasing down returners coupled with the greater hang time that Allen gets on the ball.
Which really just leaves the kickers. For the Patriots, Stephen Gostkowski has had the worst year of his career, having missed five field goals and three PATs. Matt Bryant, from significantly more attempts, has missed only three field goals and just one PAT. Moreover, his longest kick, 59 yards, is more than Gostkowski has ever made and over the season he has almost three times as many successful kicks of over 50 yards.
With all of that said, you’d have to say that it is vital for New England that they keep Atlanta from getting inside the 40 yard line on fourth down, a position where the Falcons will still feel relatively safe. Could that be the difference in this game?