New England Patriots: Special teams

Weekly special teams breakdown

December, 24, 2012
12/24/12
4:30
PM ET
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In the ESPNBoston.com weekly Patriots mailbag, “ASB” from Portland, Oregon shared a thought on our weekly special teams breakdown:

“Could you also list the personnel on the Pats' FG and FG block teams, as well as onside kick "hands" teams (kick and receive)?”

Sometimes those units don’t present themselves in a game, but two additions (field-goal protection and field-goal block) have been made to the weekly breakdown.

A few notables on special teams for the Patriots from Sunday's win over the Jaguars:

1. Matthew Slater returned kickoffs in place of Devin McCourty. That elevated Shane Vereen into the second returner position, which is usually taken by Slater.

2. After three holding penalties on the punt return unit last week, that group played cleaner. Tracy White’s return from injury was a change from last week.

3. Wes Welker continued to return punts.

4. Running back Brandon Bolden, linebacker Niko Koutouvides and receiver Matthew Slater played on all four core units, which highlights their value on the 46-man game-day roster.

5. Receiver Kamar Aiken, who was promoted off the practice squad, played on the kickoff return unit in place of Danny Woodhead.

The breakdown (based on the initial units on the field):

Punt coverage: Danny Aiken (LS), Brandon Bolden, Patrick Chung (personal protector), Marquice Cole, Niko Koutouvides, Zoltan Mesko (punter), Rob Ninkovich, Mike Rivera, Trevor Scott, Matthew Slater, Tracy White.

Punt return: Brandon Bolden, Deion Branch, Marquice Cole, Nate Ebner, Justin Francis, Michael Hoomanawanui, Niko Koutouvides, Derrick Martin, Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, Wes Welker (returner).

Kickoff coverage: Kyle Arrington, Brandon Bolden, Marquice Cole, Nate Ebner, Stephen Gostkowski (kicker), Niko Koutouvides, Devin McCourty, Mike Rivera, Matthew Slater, Tracy White, Tavon Wilson.

Kickoff return: Kamar Aiken, Brandon Bolden, Nate Ebner, Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui, Niko Koutouvides, Mike Rivera, Matthew Slater, Shane Vereen, Ryan Wendell, Tavon Wilson.

Field-goal protection: Danny Aiken (LS), Marcus Cannon, Daniel Fells, Stephen Gostkowski (kicker) Logan Mankins, Nick McDonald, Zoltan Mesko (holder), Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Sebastian Vollmer, Ryan Wendell.

Field-goal block: Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung, Brandon Deaderick, Chandler Jones, Kyle Love, Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Rob Ninkovich, Trevor Scott, Vince Wilfork, Tavon Wilson.

Highlighting special teams breakdowns

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
4:00
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Special teams let the Patriots down in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers.

The punt return unit was penalized three times for holding (linebacker Mike Rivera, cornerback Marquice Cole, and fullback James Develin). The unit also gave up a 31-yard run on a fake.

And finally, there was LaMichael James’ 62-yard kickoff return after the Patriots had tied the game at 31.

As part of our weekly special teams update, let’s list out the personnel on each of the core units:

Punt return: CB Kyle Arrington, RB Brandon Bolden, CB Marquice Cole, S Nate Ebner, DE Justin Francis, LB Niko Koutouvides, LB Mike Rivera/FB James Develin, WR Matthew Slater, CB Aqib Talb, WR Wes Welker, S Tavon Wilson

Punt coverage: LS Danny Aiken, RB Brandon Bolden, S Patrick Chung, CB Marquice Cole, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, LB Niko Koutouvides, P Zoltan Mesko, DE Rob Ninkovich, LB Mike Rivera, DE Trevor Scott, WR Matthew Slater

Kickoff coverage: CB Kyle Arrington, RB Brandon Bolden, S Patrick Chung, CB Marquice Cole, S Nate Ebner, K Stephen Gostkowski, LB Niko Koutouvides, S Devin McCourty, DE Trevor Scott, WR Matthew Slater, S Tavon Wilson

Kickoff return: RB Brandon Bolden, FB James Develin, S Nate Ebner, TE Daniel Fells, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, LB Niko Koutouvides, S Devin McCourty, LB Mike Rivera, WR Matthew Slater, S Tavon Wilson, RB Danny Woodhead

PLAYERS ON ALL FOUR UNITS: RB Brandon Bolden, LB Niko Koutouvides, WR Matthew Slater

PLAYERS ON ALL THREE UNITS: CB Marquice Cole, S Nate Ebner, LB Mike Rivera, S Tavon Wilson

Arrington & special teams update

December, 11, 2012
12/11/12
12:30
PM ET
When cornerback Kyle Arrington initially broke through on the Patriots' 53-man roster in 2009, he did so as a special teamer.

Arrington's role has grown since that time as he's a key contributor on defense, although in recent weeks, he's had a few throwback type of games on special teams. Arrington led the Patriots with two special teams tackles in Monday night's win over the Texans, both coming on the kickoff coverage unit.

Using Arrington's performance as a springboard, here is a breakdown of special teams personnel in terms of what players appeared on multiple core units, which highlights value (based on first units which took the field):

Four units
S Nate Ebner
LB Niko Koutouvides
WR Matthew Slater
LB Tracy White

Three units
CB Marquice Cole
LB Mike Rivera

Two units
CB Kyle Arrington
RB Brandon Bolden
S/CB Devin McCourty
DE Trevor Scott
S Tavon Wilson

Slater leads way on special teams

December, 3, 2012
12/03/12
2:30
PM ET
Special teams captain Matthew Slater was praised by coach Bill Belichick for his performance in Sunday's 23-16 win over the Dolphins. Slater led the Patriots with two special teams tackles.

"I thought he did an excellent job yesterday," Belichick said Monday on a conference call. "He was really good for us. We only had the one kickoff and he was there on that play even though Niko [Koutouvides] really made the first hit on that.

"Overall in the punt coverage, he did a real good job. [Marcus] Thigpen is, as we know, an excellent returner. He’s strong and he’s fast and Slate was able to make those plays and not really let him get started, which you always love to see from your gunner.

"I thought he played extremely well, played hard. He got hit on that first kickoff return, our first kickoff return, he got banged up a little bit but he came back in and did everything and played well and was very productive. I thought he had an outstanding game for us. He really helped our field position and our punt coverage."

Using Slater's performance as a springboard, here is a weekly special teams look at the players who were on multiple units, which highlights their value on the 46-man game-day roster:

Four units
S Nate Ebner
LB Niko Koutouvides
LB Mike Rivera
WR Matthew Slater
LB Tracy White

Three units
CB Marquice Cole

Two units
CB Kyle Arrington
S Patrick Chung
WR Julian Edelman
S Devin McCourty
DE Trevor Scott
S Tavon Wilson

Marquice Cole & special teams

November, 24, 2012
11/24/12
10:00
AM ET
Going to shift things up a bit this week when it comes to the weekly special teams breakdown. After each game of the season, the idea has been to identify the players who are on multiple special teams units, which highlights their value to the club.

For this week, the idea is to list the full units within the "Big 4" (starters underlined) and then focus on a possible reason that Marquice Cole was inactive:

Punt coverage: Aiken (LS), Arrington, Chung, Ebner, Koutouvides, Mesko (P), Ninkovich, Rivera, Scott, Slater, White

Kickoff coverage: Arrington, Ebner, Edelman, Gostkowski (K), Koutouvides, Martin, McCourty, Rivera, Slater, White, Wilson

Punt return: Arrington, Chung, Ebner, Edelman/Welker (returner), Koutouvides, Martin, Rivera, Scott, Slater, Talib, White

Kickoff return: Ebner, Fells, Hoomanawanui, Koutouvides, McCourty, Rivera, Vereen, Wendell, White, Wilson, Woodhead

ANALYSIS: Cole's primary role on special teams comes on the punt return unit (he most often lines up across from the gunner on the outside of the formation) and the punt coverage unit (he's one of the gunners). Multiple factors seemed to converge to put Cole in a numbers crunch for a spot on the 46-man game-day roster. First, when the defensive staff decided that Alfonzo Dennard would start at right cornerback over Kyle Arrington, it led to an expansion of special teams duties for Arrington from 1 unit vs. the Colts to 3 units vs. the Jets. Arrington is ahead of Cole on the cornerback depth chart, and with the Patriots dressing an extra safety (5 total) with Patrick Chung returning, something had to give at cornerback. Also, newcomer Aqib Talib, who is being used in the vice against opposing gunners on the punt return unit, is taking some of Cole's reps. One line of thinking is that Cole should dress over someone like Derrick Martin, but they play different roles on special teams units (Martin is on kickoff coverage and plays inside on the punt return unit. ... As a follow-up to Rob Gronkowski's injury playing on the field-goal protection unit last Sunday against the Colts, Daniel Fells took his spot this week.

Patriots starters on special teams

November, 20, 2012
11/20/12
9:20
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Rob Gronkowski's injury while playing the wing on the field-goal protection unit has sparked a discussion on the value of starters playing on special teams.

Looking at the composition of the Patriots' six primary special teams units in Sunday's win over the Colts, here are some of the notable starters playing on special teams:

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1. TE Rob Gronkowski on the field-goal protection unit.

2. DE Rob Ninkovich on punt coverage and punt return.

3. DL Vince Wilfork on the field-goal block team.

4. CB Devin McCourty on kickoff coverage and kickoff return (as the returner).

5. WR Wes Welker on the punt return unit (as the returner).

6. Every offensive lineman on the field-goal protection unit.

ANALYSIS: One of the challenges for any coaching staff is that there are only so many players on the 46-man game-day roster to fill out each special teams unit. The Patriots have quite a few special-teams-only type of players (e.g. Tracy White, Niko Koutouvides, Nate Ebner, Derrick Martin, Mike Rivera, Matthew Slater), those who are on the roster, first and foremost, because of their contributions in the kicking game. So it's not as if Belichick is loading up his special teams with starters. ... One other point of interest -- In 2010 and 2011, Gronkowski was part of the kickoff return unit, playing in the wedge (remember the tough day he had in Cleveland as a rookie in '10?). But the Patriots have taken him off that this year, seemingly as an acknowledgement of the added injury risk of playing that role (some big collisions in the wedge). Obviously, there is a different level of risk depending on the unit. In this case, the question to ask is something like this: "Is the difference between Gronkowski playing the wing that much greater than someone like Visanthe Shiancoe or Michael Hoomanawanui?"

Special teams: Ebner recovers

November, 12, 2012
11/12/12
3:15
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots special teams units had a good day Sunday against the Bills.

Going up against the NFL's No. 1-rated punt return unit, the Patriots had a good strategy: Don't punt. Zoltan Mesko was called upon just twice in the game, which reflects the complementary nature of football and how the offense contributed in this area.

And on kickoff returns, Stephen Gostkowski's strong leg was a weapon that limited exposure to potentially explosive plays (6 touchbacks on 8 kickoffs).

When looking closer at the personnel on the "Big 4" units, one other notable is the return of rookie Nate Ebner to a prominent role. Ebner, of course, was responsible for a blocked punt in the Week 2 loss to the Cardinals and saw his special teams responsibilities cut back after that performance.

Some time has passed and now Ebner is one of the few Patriots showing up on all four units (based on initial groups on the field):

Four units
S Nate Ebner
LB Niko Koutouvides
LB Mike Rivera
LB Jeff Tarpinian

Three units
WR Julian Edelman
WR Matthew Slater

Two units
CB Kyle Arrington
CB Marquice Cole
TE Michael Hoomanawanui
S Derrick Martin
DB Devin McCourty
RB Shane Vereen
S Tavon Wilson
RB Danny Woodhead

EXTRA POINTS: Rookie defensive end Justin Francis broke through and nearly blocked one punt. The punt return unit is the lone group on which Francis -- who is carving out a niche as a situational pass-rusher and punt rusher -- plays. ... Veteran Derrick Martin had the team's lone special teams tackle.

Special teams shuffles the deck

October, 29, 2012
10/29/12
2:15
PM ET
LONDON -- The Patriots' run of injuries has had a trickle-down effect on special teams, which is reflected when looking closer at the players who were part of multiple core units in Sunday's 45-7 win over the Rams.

Here is the breakdown, which accounts for the first group of personnel that took the field:

Four units
LB Bobby Carpenter
S Nate Ebner
LB Niko Koutouvides
LB Jeff Tarpinian

Three units
CB Marquice Cole
TE Michael Hoomanawanui
WR Matthew Slater
DB Malcolm Williams

Two units
WR Julian Edelman
DB Devin McCourty
RB Danny Woodhead

ANALYSIS: Of those players on all four units, Carpenter, Tarpinian and Koutouvides weren't part of the initial 53-man roster entering the season. Of the players on three units, defensive back Malcolm Williams was promoted from the practice squad on Saturday. Given the reshuffling of the deck, it's a credit to the players and special teams coach Scott O'Brien for a job well done.

Can't overlook special teams

October, 22, 2012
10/22/12
1:45
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Bill Belichick had to be thrilled with the special teams performance in Sunday’s 29-26 overtime win over the Jets.

If not for Devin McCourty’s fumbled kickoff return late, and a 41-yard kickoff return surrendered to Joe McKnight, the overall effort would have been even more decisive.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski delivered two of the biggest field goals in his seven-year tenure with the team (43 yards at the end of regulation, 48 yards in overtime), and Zoltan Mesko had six punts for a 44.8 average, 41.2 net, with four inside the 20.

Furthermore, the protection on the punt team was solid, which was anything but a given considering some of the injuries the team is dealing with. So too was the protection on the field-goal unit, which required some last-minute tweaking when offensive lineman Dan Connolly’s illness knocked him out of action.

Devin McCourty had the explosive 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter.

With this as a lead-in, a look at the players who showed up on multiple core units in the game (based on the first units that took the field):

Four units
Bobby Carpenter
Marquice Cole
Nate Ebner
Niko Koutouvides
Trevor Scott

Three units
Michael Hoomanawanui

Two units
Sterling Moore
Matthew Slater
Danny Woodhead

NOTES: Matthew Slater, the special teams captain, is usually on more units but was likely limited because of a foot/leg injury that knocked him out of the end of the loss to the Seahawks. … Linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, who was signed off the practice squad Saturday, was part of just the kickoff return unit. … Kyle Arrington, Michael Hoomanawanui, Tavon Wilson and Julian Edelman were credited with tackles.

Personnel concerns on special teams

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
12:00
PM ET
SEATTLE, Wash. -- This isn't the best week to have personnel concerns on special teams, as Sunday's opponent, the Jets, annually challenges the Patriots in this area.

This is where injuries hit the deepest for the Patriots on Sunday in Seattle.

Special teams captain Matthew Slater limped off in the fourth quarter and didn't return. He plays on all four core special teams units. Running back Brandon Bolden, who regularly plays on three of the four units, limped off in the second quarter with a knee injury and didn't return. Meanwhile, safety Patrick Chung (2 units) -- who serves as the personal protector on the punt team -- left the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury and didn't return. His backup, Steve Gregory, remains out with a hip injury. Another top special teams player, linebacker Tracy White, missed Sunday's game altogether with a foot injury.

Bill Belichick has often said that the composition of the 46-man game-day roster is made up with special teams a key consideration, and that when a core special teamer is not available, it often takes multiple players to fill that void.

Consider that this is how the Patriots replaced White, their second-leading special-teams tackler in 2011, on Sunday in Seattle:

Punt coverage team: Nate Ebner
Punt return team: Justin Francis
Kickoff return team: Sterling Moore
Kickoff coverage team: Trevor Scott

They essentially used four players to fill one role, although those players also contributed in other areas on defense. But their ability to contribute on special teams was a significant part of the roster puzzle.

So it wouldn't be surprising if the Patriots scan the free-agent market for a core special teams type player, someone who might be able to bridge the gap for a week or so if Slater, White and Co. will need some time to heal.

Meanwhile, here is a look at the players who showed up on multiple special teams units against the Seahawks (based on the first units that came on to the field):

Four units
Bobby Carpenter
Marquice Cole
Nate Ebner
Niko Koutouvides
Matthew Slater

Three units
Brandon Bolden
Trevor Scott

Two units
Kyle Arrington
Patrick Chung
Rob Ninkovich

Special teams personnel, Week 5

October, 8, 2012
10/08/12
4:10
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A look at the players who showed up on multiple units within the "Big 4" on special teams -- punt coverage, punt return, kickoff coverage, kickoff return -- in Sunday's win over the Broncos, which highlights their value on the 46-man game-day roster (based on the initial unit to take the field):

Four units
LB Bobby Carpenter
CB Marquice Cole
LB Niko Koutouvides
WR Matthew Slater
LB Tracy White

Three units
S Nate Ebner

Two units
CB Kyle Arrington
RB Brandon Bolden
S Patrick Chung
CB Devin McCourty
DE Rob Ninkovich
DE Trevor Scott

ANALYSIS: Veteran Bobby Carpenter, who was signed to replace the injured Dont'a Hightower, didn't play on defense. His sole contributions came on special teams, where he was part of all four core units. ... Rookie running back Brandon Bolden, who played on all four in the win over the Bills on Sept. 30, was on just two units. That could have been related to injury (he was on the injury report), or perhaps it's more of a result of the increased opportunities he is seeing on offense. ... Rookie safety Nate Ebner is slumping a bit. He's been replaced on the punt protection after giving up a costly block in Week 2, but when he was pressed into duty after Tracy White left with a foot injury in the third quarter on Sunday, he was penalized for holding. ... Nice tackle by Kyle Arrington on the opening kickoff. ... For the second week in a row, the Patriots have lightened the load on tight end Rob Gronkowski, taking him out of the wedge on the kickoff return. ... The kickoff return unit remains a disappointment. It's been this way for almost two full seasons now, ever since Brandon Tate dipped midway through the 2010 campaign. It seems like a long time ago when the Patriots were explosive in this area of the game.

Special teams personnel, Week 3

September, 24, 2012
9/24/12
2:00
PM ET
BALTIMORE -- A look at the players who showed up on multiple units within the "Big 4" on special teams -- punt coverage, punt return, kickoff coverage, kickoff return -- in Sunday's loss to the Ravens, which highlights their value on the 46-man game-day roster:

Four units
RB Brandon Bolden
LB Niko Koutouvides
WR Matthew Slater
LB Tracy White

Three units
CB Marquice Cole
S Nate Ebner
CB Devin McCourty
DE Trevor Scott

Two units
CB Kyle Arrington
S Patrick Chung
S Tavon Wilson

ANALYSIS: A few notable personnel changes, with the Patriots demoting rookie Nate Ebner on the punt protection unit after he was overpowered on the left wing in the Week 2 loss vs. the Cardinals. Linebacker Jerod Mayo joined the unit in place of Ebner, with veteran Tracy White moving to Ebner's spot on the wing. ... On the kickoff return unit, tight ends Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui played in the wedge, with Rob Gronkowski moved off that unit. ... Rookies Tavon Wilson and Brandon Bolden tied for the team lead with two special teams tackles apiece.

Special teams personnel, Week 2

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
12:00
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A look at the players who showed up on multiple units within the "Big 4" on special teams -- punt coverage, punt return, kickoff coverage, kickoff return -- in Sunday's loss to the Cardinals, which highlights their value on the 46-man game-day roster:

Four units
RB Brandon Bolden
S Nate Ebner
LB Mike Rivera
WR Matthew Slater
LB Tracy White

Three units
CB Marquice Cole
CB Devin McCourty
DE Trevor Scott

Two units
S Patrick Chung
S Tavon Wilson

ANALYSIS: Special teams ultimately let the Patriots down, and given some of the youth in the core group, it seems fair to say this was a game where inexperience hurt the team (specifically on the blocked punt with Ebner not holding up on the left side). This was the same group that played a core role in the season-opener, and had success, so this could be chalked up to some of the ups and downs that come with young players growing into the job.

Players with top special teams value

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
12:00
PM ET
NASHVILLE -- A look at the players who in the season-opener showed up on multiple units within the "Big 4" on special teams -- kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return, punt coverage -- which highlights their value on the roster:

Four units
RB Brandon Bolden
S Nate Ebner
LB Mike Rivera
WR Matthew Slater
LB Tracy White

Three units
CB Marquice Cole
S Tavon Wilson

Two units
S Patrick Chung
CB Devin McCourty
DE Trevor Scott

EXTRA POINTS: Nate Ebner led the team with two special teams tackles. Tracy White and Stephen Gostkowski had one apiece. ... Recently signed fullback Lex Hilliard played on the front line on the kickoff return unit. ... Devin McCourty was the primary kickoff returner, replacing Danny Woodhead in that role.

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