Curran: Kicking around some kickoff strategy

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Curran: Kicking around some kickoff strategy

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
FOXBORO - My name is Tom. And I'm way too interested in the new kickoff rule. (Hi Tom.) I think I will get over it. But for right now, in these nascent days of the ball being teed 15 feet closer to the opposing end zone, the possibilities seem endless. A cavalcade of onsides kicks? Scoring plunges? Soaring scoring? How will it all affect this game, this game, this game, this game? Lotta things. Lotta things. Bill Belichick is thinking about the kickoffs too. And the preseason game Thursday night against Tampa Bay will provide more data about how to best approach the normally routine play. Does a team simply have its kicker pound the ball out of the end zone? Or hang it high and let his coverage team try to pin the returner inside the 20? I asked Belichick about the "hang it high" approach.

"If you cant cover it very well, then youd probably take every touchback you can get," he said. "If you feel youve got a lot of confidence in your coverage team and your kickers ability to place the ball with both location and hang time, then you might feel differently about that. That might not be the same every game; the situation may change. Thats the thing about playing here that we have to be very aware of in the kicking game just how situations change every single week.

"If youre playing in a dome in St. Louis or Detroit or wherever, you know what its going to be every single week, so you can plan accordingly," he continued. "In our situation, because the elements affect the kicking game first before they affect even the passing game, we have a lot of situations that we have to deal with: weve got crosswinds, we kick into the wind, we kick with the wind, weve got weather conditions in addition to all the other variables of just the team youre playing and what they do and so forth. There are a lot of different options there and things that we have to consider. And the bad side of it is defensively, on the return team, we have to be ready for all of those different things, too: where theyre going to kick it and what theyre going to do and how the elements affect us. Its an interesting part of the game, it really is."

Oh, I agree. The main point of the new rule is to create more touchbacks and fewer collisions between 250-pounders going about 17 mph. But it also adds an opportunity for kicking teams to be experimental.

"I think part of it gets down to how you feel you match up against your opponent," Belichick offered. "My guess would be, with all other things being equal, Chicago would see more touchbacks than some other teams would (because of their explosive return game). But they may not because of the conditions that they play in that may not statistically show up. But I think if they played on the same field as the other 31 teams in the same conditions, if you had a chance to kick it out of the end zone or not kick it out of the end zone, you would probably choose to kick it out of the end zone, if your kicker could do that."

Of the 13 kickoffs in last week's preseason opener between the Pats and Jaguars, 10 sailed into the end zone. The Jaguars returned six kickoffs. Their starting field position was their own 11, New England's 18 and their own 17, 24, 13 and 6.

There are hidden yards in every game. And a team that is inside its own 20 after a kickoff return may be inclined to play-call more conservatively. If you have a kicker who can drop a kickoff at the goal line every time, the opportunity is there to get extra yards for the kicking team.

"Certainly, theres an opportunity for more momentum in the game, just like we saw last week in the Jacksonville game: score, kickoff, tackle them on the 11, bad punt, score again," Belichick agreed. "In two minutes, youve got a quick turn around. So, that can work both ways, too."

The guy in charge of serving up the kickoffs, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, is amenable to anything.

"If the coach wants to kick it high to the goal line, I'll do that," he said. "If he wants me to blast it and get a touchback, I'll try to do that too."

The possibilities? Endless.

Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Curran’s 100 plays that shaped a dynasty: The Top 2

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Curran’s 100 plays that shaped a dynasty: The Top 2

We're down to the Top 2. 

These are the plays of the Bill Belichick Era you best never forget. And probably can't. They're the ones that led directly to championships -- most for New England, a couple for the other guys. Or they're plays that signified a sea change in the way the New England Patriots under Belichick would be behaving from there on out.

I did my best to stack them in order of importance. You got a problem with that? Good. Let us know what's too high, too low or just plain wrong. And thanks for keeping up!

PLAY NUMBER: 2

THE YEAR: 2014

THE GAME: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24

THE PLAY: Malcolm Butler picks off Russell Wilson at goal line to save Super Bowl

WHY IT’S HERE: Is it the biggest defensive play in NFL history? You’d have a tough time making a case for any play to be ranked ahead of it. The play itself – Malcolm Butler sniffing out a quick slant to Ricardo Lockette on second-and-goal from the 1 with 26 seconds left – was a singularly great football play. The historical importance of it to the Patriots franchise in delivering a fourth Super Bowl title and preventing a third straight Super Bowl loss is even more far-reaching. It’s a play that symbolized a lot of things the Patriots under Bill Belichick have been about. It symbolized that it doesn’t matter how you got to the Patriots, it mattered what you did when you got there. Butler, an undrafted rookie who made the team in a tryout the previous spring, was on the field because another undrafted player, Kyle Arrington was getting lit up. A bold move but one that had to be made. It symbolized preparation and attention to detail. During the week of practice leading up to the game, Butler arrived late when the Patriots scout team offense ran the play and Jimmy Garoppolo beat Butler with a throw to Josh Boyce. The play needed to be sniffed out – it was by Butler and Brandon Browner – then executed with a great jam by Browner and an unhesitating break by Butler. It symbolized maintaining poise, which the Patriots had to do after the ridiculous juggling catch by Jermaine Kearse put Seattle on the brink of victory. It symbolized a measure of risk-taking and coaching by feel, as Bill Belichick eschewed a timeout and let the Seahawks run the play. That the coaches locking brains at the point – Belichick and his predecessor in New England, Pete Carroll – added another chapter to the backstory. You could write a book about this play.  

PLAY NUMBER: 1

THE YEAR: 2001

THE GAME: Jets, Patriots

THE PLAY: Mo Lewis changes course of NFL history with sideline hit on Drew Bledsoe

WHY IT’S HERE: While the Butler interception at No. 2 cemented legacies and places in history, the play at the top of this list was the one that started it all. If you paid attention to what Tom Brady was doing in training camp practices and preseason games (30-for-51 for 390 yards) and contrasted it with Bledsoe’s performances (so underwhelming he played the bulk of the fourth preseason game and went 14-for-22), you could see the gap between $100 million franchise quarterback and sixth-round afterthought was closing. But even with the Patriots losing at Cincy to open the season and Bledsoe playing  poorly against the Jets, it was still going to be very difficult for Bill Belichick to press the eject button on Bledsoe. The team was building a new stadium and Bledsoe was the hood ornament for the franchise. With ownership trying to sell luxury suites and sponsorships, benching the only marketable player for the worst team in the league might not be prudent. Then Mo Lewis intervened. With 5:19 remaining and the Patriots trailing 10-3, Bledsoe was flushed to the right on a third-and-10 from the Patriots 19. As he neared the sticks, Bledsoe saw Lewis coming and slowed to go out of bounds, then seemed to remember it was third down and he needed to push forward. Lewis had all the momentum and his devastating hit sheared an artery in Bledsoe’s chest and gave him a concussion. It was a terrible injury that caused internal bleeding and put Bledsoe in some touchy moments in the hospital. And that’s what sucked. Here was a solid person of good character with a young family who’d given a lot for the franchise (albeit for a handsome paycheck) and now he was seriously hurt. But what happened in Bledsoe’s absence only confirmed what many suspected. He was an impediment to winning. It was that simple. I don’t doubt for a moment Brady would have eventually taken Bledsoe’s job even if the injury hadn’t occurred. It might have been that week anyway Bledsoe was so ineffective against the Jets. But the course of the 2001 season wouldn’t have been the same and almost certainly wouldn’t have ended with Bledsoe hoisting a Lombardi in the Superdome on Feb. 3, 2002.