Patriots Special Teams: What Went Wrong In 2021?

Patriots Special Teams
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With 2022 training camp upon us, all eyes are on the New England Patriots offense and defense. As many fans and analysts watch for year-two improvements in Mac Jones and how New England plans on solving their defensive woes, the oft-overlooked Patriots special teams unit remains something of an under-the-radar problem.

It seems odd that the special teams unit would be a point of interest during training camp, but after such a messy season in 2021, it could very well be one of the defining factors for New England’s playoff push this come January. 

What Went Wrong With the Patriots Special Teams?

Despite having 10x Pro Bowl gunner Matthew Slater90% field goal percentage kicker Nick Folk, and 2020 All-Pro punter Jake Bailey, the special teams unit hurt the Patriots in far too many ways last season. To begin, in 2021, the Patriots allowed three blocked punts. For reference, in the previous five seasons, New England had only given up one blocked punt, exhibiting the marked change in overall special teams’ play. Moreover, the Patriots special teams unit often suffered untimely and costly penalties throughout the season, whether it be offsides, encroachment, or illegal formations that impacted games mightily.

For example, in Week 15, a game where the Patriots trailed the Indianapolis Colts for all four quarters, an offsides penalty committed by Brandon King on a missed field goal attempt put the Colts in better field position. Indy capitalized on the mistake, making their next attempt and forcing the Patriots to play difficult situational football and ultimately costing them the game.

Then again, in Week 18 against the Miami Dolphins, a late-hit penalty called on special teamer Brandon Bolden and an illegal formation penalty on defensive lineman Lawrence Guy doomed the Patriots chances of mounting a comeback in a game with pivotal playoff implications. Needless to say, the mistakes committed in 2021 were a troubling trend and had all eyes on special teams coach Cameron Achord. 

Was The Patriots Special Teams Coaching To Blame?

Although Achord coached Jake Bailey, Gunner Olszewski, and Mathew Slater to the Pro Bowl in 2020 and a special teams group to be a top-five unit in the league, the Patriots precipitous backslide in 2021 raised several questions about his coaching.

Did he change his techniques? Was he trying to do too much? Or, quite frankly, did the Patriots’ special teams just not cross their Ts and dot their Is for an entire season? While the latter seems antithetical to “The Patriot Way,” it is still a fair question to raise, considering how much New England struggled on special teams in 2021.

If special teams slip-ups continue to occur this season in 2022, it could be time for the Patriots to look for a new coach in Foxboro.

New Face, New Places

Another possible culprit for the Patriots uncharacteristic play could be their personnel. With a massive influx and exodus of players to and from the team, miscommunications with new special teamers could have created problems.

New players often have trouble picking up the Patriots offensive and defensive systems, and special teams are no exception. Perhaps the miscues on blocking schemes led to the Patriots allowing three blocked punts and a slew of other erroneous penalties. Some newcomers may not have been up to snuff to play such an important role for this team. But with another season of play under their belt, there is a chance that the new special teamers will show improvements in 2022 and get back on track.

While I am fairly confident they can improve under Achord, I am cautiously optimistic that they will. 

The Outlook For The Patriots Special Teams In 2022

Part of why special teams will be so critical to New England this season is because the Patriots are not talented enough on offense or defense to lose sight of good special teams play. For years, when Tom Brady headed high-flying offenses and Bill Belichick oversaw stout, exceptional defenses, special teams’ play could be seen as something of an afterthought. After all, if something went awry, the Brady-Belichick tandem could right all ships. But now, with a coaching staff cabal of Joe Judge and Matt Patricia and players still looking to get their footing on the team, New England will need to fire on all cylinders on all sides of the ball to compete.

If history is any indication, the Patriots should be OK on special teams this season. It is rare for the Patriots’ organization to allow these kinds of errors to persist under the watchful eye of Bill Belichick. By zeroing in on preventing mental errors and lapses in concentration, the Patriots’ special teams unit should return to normal.

But the bottom line is that the Patriots cannot afford to be sloppy on special teams this season in important games against teams like the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, and Miami Dolphins. With such a tightly contested race for the AFC East and Wild Card spots, a few special teams slip-ups could cost the Patriots not only a few games but their season entirely.