FOXBORO — Life offers few shortcuts. You get out of it what you put into it. The Patriots put a ton into special teams, and it’s not just coach speak. Consequently, they get a ton out of it.
They have blocked four punts, the most by an NFL team since the Giants had four in 2014, scored touchdowns on two of those and took the ball into the end zone after short drives on the other two.
The Patriots’ success on special teams, as with most aspects of their dynasty, can be traced to head coach Bill Belichick’s background. His first assignments with the Lions, Broncos and Giants came coaching special teams. He knows that the difference between tidy and sloppy special teams can equate to the difference between winning and losing games.
Special teams players know when they’re being treated as spare parts and when they’re treated as, well, special.
“A lot of (special teams) guys grinding their way through their NFL careers, whether they’re just trying to make teams through special teams or make careers out of playing special teams,” said Patriots full-time special teams player Nate Ebner. “It has a little bit of a blue-collar mentality to it. I think some might say special teams guys might be more easily replaceable guys, before an offensive starter or a defensive starter who plays on every package. On some teams they’re valued differently. It’s valued here. I’m fortunate to be here. It’s definitely valued here. Across the league I think the general consensus would be that they might be replaced more easily as a (special) teams player who’s just playing (special) teams.”
Not with the Patriots. Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel and Ebner play solely special teams. Brandon Bolden’s work on special teams is valued at least as much as what he contributes as a running back. Jonathan Jones is a standout at more than just cornerback.
Budding stars and specialists alike don’t take their roles as secondary. They view their roles as chances to win games, and they’ve swayed the outcome of multiple games this season alone.
J.C. Jackson blocked a punt and Slater took into the end zone for his first career touchdown, saving the Patriots in a 16-10 victory at Buffalo. In the 13-9 win vs. the Cowboys, Slater blocked a punt, Ebner recovered it, and two plays later Tom Brady threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to N’Keal Harry. In a 23-16 loss to the Chiefs, Ebner produced his first career blocked punt, setting up Bolden’s 10-yard TD run. Bolden blocked a punt against the Giants and Chase Winovich took it to the end zone.
On Sunday in Cincinnati, Bethel recovered a muffed punt and Ebner put himself in position for another blocked punt, but just missed getting his hand on the football.
“When you have a little success in doing it it can be a bit of affirmation toward the work that you’re putting in,” Ebner said. “It shows you that it’s worth it.”
Ebner’s path to three Super Bowl titles started as a walk-on at Ohio State, where he played his final three seasons of college. He had the itch to play football for the first time as a senior in Dublin, Ohio, but didn’t scratch it because he didn’t want to risk injury that would have kept him off the junior national rugby team. His high school won the state football title, so his taste of a football championship had to be delayed.
He played on a national junior rugby team early during his time at Ohio State and once that was behind him he played on a club rugby team. That wasn’t quite enough to sate his competitive desire so he showed up for a walk-on tryout at Ohio State.
“It’s in the middle of winter and about 80 kids come out with their Ohio State jerseys on, their Andy Katzenmoyer jerseys, their Archie Griffin jerseys,” Ebner said, smiling at the memory. “It’s kind of funny, actually. It’s like out of a movie.”
He said “12 to 15” of the 80 who show up are selected to participate in walk-on workouts for two or three weeks.
“They just wear your ass out, pretty much make you quit or see just how bad you want to play football,” he said. “A lot of the guys just wanted to wear the jerseys on Saturdays and they weed that out through pain. That was still to this day some of the hardest stuff I ever did, the true walk-on workouts. At the end of those two weeks, there are about five or six of you left and then after spring ball they take two or three of you to make the actual team. By the end of it, only me and one other player played the whole time we had left at Ohio State and he didn’t even play a down.”
Ebner’s speed, toughness and aggressive mentality turned him into such a special teams standout that the Patriots chose him in the sixth round in 2012 and he’s carved out a nice career for himself in an organization that values him greatly.
The Patriots will have a tough time scoring on the Bills’ defense. Don’t discount the possibility that the outcome of Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. kickoff at Gillette Stadium, which has the lowest over/under total (37.5) of any NFL game this week, could be determined by a huge special teams play.