Do not overlook the third aspect of football in the second Jets-Patriots meeting
In Week 8, when the New York Jets lost 22-17 to the New England Patriots, their special teams DVOA ranking dropped from third to 10th in the NFL.
That drop may have been the single biggest swing in the game, Zach Wilson’s three interceptions and John Franklin-Myers’s roughing the passer penalty notwithstanding.
The Jets came into the game thinking that they’d have the special teams advantage, mainly in punt returning. After all, New England’s special teams DVOA was 15th-ranked at the time, largely based on the weakness of their punter, Jake Bailey.
At that point, Bailey was averaging just 43.1 yards per punt, 31st out of 32 punters. His net average was 35.2, the worst in the league by over 2.7 yards. Bailey’s punts were yielding 10.4 yards per return, and he ranked 21st with 46.4% of his punts generating returns. Meanwhile, at the time, Braxton Berrios was averaging 12.9 yards per return, the fifth-highest mark among 34 punt returners.
Instead, the Patriots completely flipped the script on the Jets. In the punting game, Braden Mann averaged just 34.0 net yards per punt, based mainly on a 22-yard shanked punt. The punt coverage, which had been one of the tops in the league to that point, allowed a 32-yard return to Marcus Jones, which led directly to a Patriots field goal despite the defense giving up no yardage on the drive.
The Jets’ return game, on the other hand, was nonexistent. Braxton Berrios had three fair catches, including one at the Jets’ 8-yard line. In the kick return game, Berrios fell right into the Patriots’ trap. New England tends to try to kick off short and pin their opponents inside the 25. On the opening kickoff of the game, though, Bailey kicked three yards deep in the end zone. Instead of taking a knee and starting on the 25, Berrios ran it out and was promptly tackled at the 18, already setting the Jets up with an extra long field.
I understand Berrios’s aggressiveness there. After all, he was an All-Pro returner last season and has some strong returns this year, too. However, considering the strength of New England’s kickoff coverage (currently ninth in kickoff DVOA), it would be wise to take the yards given to you. The potential reward is not worth the risk in this case.
On the flip side, in the Jets’ kickoff game, there’s something somewhat puzzling going on. The Jets have switched back and forth between Braden Mann and Greg Zuerlein kicking off. On 29 kickoffs, Zuerlein has 25 touchbacks, an 86.2% rate that ranks second in the NFL. While Mann has 10 touchbacks on 12 non-onside kick attempts, a similar 83.3% rate, he botched the opening kickoff against the Bills in Week 9, giving Buffalo field position at their own 45. It was somewhat fluky, but taken together with Mann’s two shanked punts this season, there does seem to be a theme that Mann is not as reliable as Zuerlein. So why would you have Mann continue to kick off?
In theory, it’s possible that the Jets want Mann to kick short of the end zone to pin teams inside the 25, but that seemingly has not happened. Zuerlein has not messed up in this area, while Mann has. Zuerlein is called Greg the Leg for a reason. Let Zuerlein kick off and minimize the risk of a boneheaded error.
In the kicking game, there isn’t much a team can do except ask its kicker to convert. Although Zuerlein has mostly been solid this season, his 45-yard miss was a huge momentum swing in the first Patriots game. It came on the Jets’ opening drive of the second half immediately after the Patriots had marched right down the field for a touchdown. A conversion in that situation would have tied the score at 13 and restored the balance in the game. Instead, the missed field goal allowed New England to drive down for a field goal of their own, and that’s when Zach Wilson’s struggles started. It is reasonable to wonder if Wilson felt the pressure to do it all himself after seeing that swing.
Overall, in Week 8, New England ranked first in the league with a 19.4% special teams DVOA, while the Jets ranked dead-last with a -15.7% number. For reference, each of those numbers ranks in the top 10 single-game best and worst results this season, respectively.
The Jets did many things far better than the Patriots in Week 8. However, crushing mistakes turned the game around. Gang Green must do their part to eliminate the mistakes, and changing their approach on special teams is a part of that.
Glad you brought this up, I was disappointed with their performance in that game. This cannot happen. It was a big swing and major part in them losing that game. 22 yard punts, long punt returns against, missed 43 yard FG’s, and poor returns all add up. That will get you beat against most teams, if they do that again in NE it might just get them blown out.
Exactly. NE crushes teams who beat themselves.
Leave ot to Bellicheck. The 25 is not bad field position.
Ive been wondering all year why almost everyone was kicking it put of the end zone.
If you have good special teams your goal should be able to pin the team back inside the 20.
I saw it so often I began to think it was a rule. You must try to kick the ball out of the endzone.
We should be using that ourselves. It’s silly to constantly have your opponent start at the 25.
Inside the 20 you’ll see more cautious play.
One 15 yard play and you’re at the 40. makes no sense and of course leave it to Bellicheck to come up with it first.
I think the issue is that you risk shanks and bad kicks when you try to kick long but not too long. We’ve seen kicks to the 10 that then are returned past the 30. You need to have really good coverage to bet on that.
I’d prefer the lower-risk play even if it comes with a lower reward. The 25 is decent field position, but it’s not great. Prior to the change in rules, A kick returner was considered good if he was getting his team closer to the 30. 25 wasn’t considered particularly special.
I know that the Jets may think they have good enough coverage to do that, but I wouldn’t take that risk, as I said.
First of all, thank you for finally pointing out how critical ST failures were to this loss. They were at least equally responsible as Zach, if not more so, for that loss.
As for touchbacks, I’m of the opinion that you should take a knee every single time. Making it past the 25 on a return is rare, and even if you do, it’s usually only a difference of a couple of yards. Far more frequently, either they fail to archieve the 25, or there is a penalty and you wind up starting inside the 15.
I’d like to see kick return stats completely changed. I think the returner’s number should be relative to the 25. If you run it out from 5yds deep in the EZ and make it to the 20, they give you credit for a 25 yard return. I would make that a -5 yard return, because he could have simply gotten the 25 by taking a knee. His decision to run it out hurt the team and the stat should reflect that. If he makes it to the 30 otoh, he gets credit for a +5yd return. Regardless of where the kick lands, it’s where you end up that counts.
Not that my vote counts, but I agree with you on the kickoff return statistics.
As for touchbacks, I’ll disagree if you have a good special teams like the Jets. Starting at the 22 or 28 isn’t the important part, it is the (slight) chance of the fantastic field position you can flip on a long return (or TD). Game Changer.
Maybe because of its long history, I actually think that any kick return past the 20 is a win because of the potential that it COULD have been to the house! Would be an interesting article to see some statistics\analysis…
As to Rivka’s point, I take the same position as one should see from my above comment. I would always kick it for a touchback if I could when kicking normal. On the other hand, if kicking after a positive 15 yard penalty, I’d get creative….Always good to have the ball.
I should have clarified that I was distinguishing between the Patriots and other teams in my article. Against teams with average special teams coverage and coaching, I would tend to agree that Berrios should take it out if the situation allows it. He’s capable of breaking one at any moment.
However, against New England specifically, I would not take the ball out. Their coverage is set to trap the opponent, and they’re good at it. When you kick the ball high and short, even if it goes a yard or two into the end zone, it gives the coverage team a lot more time to get into position. The Patriots take full advantage of this. Against New England, if a kick goes into the end zone, I would take a knee. If it’s out of the end zone, then the Jets should have very specific blocking drawn up to punish the aggressive coverage men coming on the angle downfield. I know that the safety rules have precluded a lot of the blocking advantages (another reason that taking a knee might make sense), but I still think there’s a way to draw it up to make it a one-cut big gain.
What would you do after the 15 yard penalty? Try an onside kick or just kick it high and short of the end zone that it makes good field position impossible?
I’m not necessarily of the opinion of always taking a knee with a guy like Berrios returning. Even this season, we’ve seen him with some good returns. He’s a one-cut-and-he’s-gone type of athlete.
That being said, the Patriots play coverage specifically to trap returners. Clearly, Belichick schemes it up to stop the player short of the 25. When the kickoff is high and not so deep, it gives the coverage men a lot of time to get downfield. Therefore, I would not take it out against New England if the kick is in the end zone. Obviously, if it’s out of the end zone, there’s no choice.
Against the Bills, for example, I thought it made sense to return. The Jets were the less talented team looking to get an edge in whatever way they could. Against NE, though, I don’t think it’s wise to go in with that mindset. The Jets are the more talented team.
I agree 100% about return stats. I don’t understand why they even add on the end zone yardage, since it makes no difference except to make the return more difficult. You can have a separate stat tracking the number of end zone yards per return or something like that. That would actually make the advisability of returners’ decisions more easily quantifiable.