By Paul Kenyon | Providence Journal
FOXBORO, Mass. -- It is not as if seeing his players score touchdowns is something new for Scott O'Brien. But it sure is fun for the New England Patriots' special teams coach when it happens.
Three times in the last five games, O'Brien's special teams have given the Patriots touchdowns, a 32-yard return of a fumbled kickoff by Julian Edelman on Thanksgiving Night against the New York Jets, an 86-yard punt return by Edelman in the Indianapolis Colts game and a 104-yard kickoff return by Devin McCourty in the first game against the Jets.
For those who like to keep track, that brings the number of touchdowns on special teams to 38 for O'Brien's units with the four different teams he has worked for in his 20-year NFL career. That has included 21 punt returns, 12 kickoff returns, two blocked field goals, one faked field goal, one blocked punt and, thanks to Edelman, one fumbled kickoff return.
It probably was not surprising that O'Brien seemed to be in an upbeat mood Tuesday as he held a rare conference call with reporters.
"Any time you can contribute with big plays or put points on the board for your team it's a credit to the players on the field and what our goals are every week," O'Brien said. "It's good to see them have success because they've worked so hard all year."
While the New England offense is on a record pace and the defense looks much improved, the special teams have held up their end all season and in previous seasons, as well. Rick Gosselin, the NFL reporter for the Dallas Morning News, the Journal's parent paper, has put together a formula for rating special teams.
At the end of each season, he uses 22 categories, taking in every aspect of special teams, and compiles all the numbers. Last season, Gosselin had the Patriots ranked fifth among the 32 teams. In 2010, his formula had the Patriots as the best in the league.
The units are a priority for Bill Belichick.
"We really look at special teams as being a third of the game," said Belichick, a former special-teams coach himself. "The field position is huge -- trying to start offensively on a shorter field or trying to play defensively on a longer field, as well as taking advantage of our scoring opportunities on the field-goal team and making plays, game changing plays in the kicking game, which is one of our goals every week.
"Of course, it always comes down to good execution by the specialists. We've had production by the return game here in the second half of the season. Our coverage units have been pretty solid all year, but anytime you can turn the ball over those are huge plays. We had the ball out a couple times in the Colts game but couldn't get it; it came out against the Jets, we capitalized on that and returned it. It's a challenge for us every week in that phase of the game.
"Miami is really good; they're well-coached and they have a lot of big, fast guys that are physical. They work hard at it, they do a good job in the kicking game; good specialists," Belichick said. "Our guys, Matt Slater has done a great job as the captain of the special teams with his leadership and making it a total cohesive unit even though it's six different units, but it's still more players on all of them. He's doing a great job with that this year."
A couple of weeks ago, when Rob Gronkowski broke his left forearm blocking on the point-after team, some criticized the Pats for using a key player on that unit. O'Brien explained how he and Belichick go about making up the special teams.
"If it's the hands team where you have your starting wide receivers or the kickoff coverage team or having a starter from the secondary, be it your safety or whatever, I mean, we really want our role players and backup players to be the core of our special teams. That's what we try to build," he explained. "But we're always trying to put the best players out there because you have to play 11 players besides your specialist -- you have to be able to do the job. We're trying to put what we think are the 11 best players out there at one time and then we kind of just go from there."
O'Brien spoke about the boost Edelman and McCourty have provided his units and about how happy he is with punter Zoltam Mesko. He also expressed support for placekicker Stephen Gostkowski, who has missed five field goals this season.
"I have a lot of confidence in Stephen. I don't think he's lost his confidence at all," O'Brien said. "He's missed a couple that he'd like to have back, we all would like to have back, but the most important thing is that he can learn from either the misses or the ones he does make to make sure he can correct himself if he does miss. There's probably nobody more disappointed when he does miss it than himself.
"But, I don't think there's any concern about the confidence. He's a self-starter; he's very competitive. He works very hard at it. The good thing is when he makes contact, he has a pretty good idea of what has happened as a result so he can (move) on to get ready to kick the next one," O'Brien concluded.