Scott O’Brien has been the Patriots’ special teams coach for six years. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — Often times on some NFL teams, the special teams unit gets over looked. Not so much with the New England Patriots.
Led by special teams coach Scott O’Brien — in his sixth year as New England, but serving as a special teams coach in the NFL since 1991 — the Patriots have emerged as one of the better special teams units in the league, making game-changing plays on numerous occasions.
The Patriots’ special teams group finished first in Rick Gosselin’s famous NFL special teams rankings this year and finished seventh in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranking, a major credit to the work O’Brien has done with his players.
“I’m not sure,” O’Brien said when asked why he’s coached special teams exclusively for 23 seasons. “I’m sure I was influenced by a lot of people I came up with through my career. I’ve always enjoyed it as a player. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s always been something I’ve enjoyed doing. I love the schemes, the creation of it. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s just one thing. I’ve had a lot of influences on me.”
New England has blocked five kicks this season — four field goals and one punt. The unit has seen three players get named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Chris Jones for his field goal block in the closing seconds against the Jets in Week 7, Julian Edelman for his punt return for a touchdown against the Broncos in Week 9 and Ryan Allen for his field position changing punts in Week 14 against the Chargers.
The four blocked field goals on the year was a franchise record.
“I think a lot of it has been, like I said, timing,” O’Brien said. “It’s a group effort no matter who blocks it. To block kicks in this league is hard to do. It usually takes more than one thing to happen to have that success, but I think these guys have always worked hard at it. You just get the right combination of the right players in the right spot. You give them a chance to have success, and they have it. It’s obviously had a big impact during the games.”
This isn’t even mentioning the job Allen, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and long-snapper Danny Aiken have done. Allen averaged 46.4 yards per punt, which was good for 10th in the NFL, while Gostkowski connected on 94.6 percent of his field goals — the second-best mark in the league.
The Patriots go above and beyond when it comes to valuing special teams, as they often keep multiple players on the 53-man roster just because of their ability to stand out on special teams — Matthew Slater being the prime example.
Slater, a seven-year veteran, played just 16 total offensive snaps this season according to Pro Football Focus, but was also named to the Pro Bowl for the fourth straight season as a special teamer. Knowing how much value the Patriots organization has in special teams, Slater knows how fortunate he was to be selected by them in the fourth round in the 2008 draft.
“For me personally it’s awesome,” said Slater. “I really think me being here is a Godsend because there are not many teams that approach the special teams phase like we do and put as much time into it as we do. We have a great group of guys that take a lot of pride is playing at a high level so it’s been great being apart of this.”
“Obviously, a lot of teams don’t do that,” Slater said of having roster spots reserved for core special teams guys. “I think maybe we are considered a little different in that way and it is a formula that works for us, and it is a formula that has allowed this team to have a lot of success over the years.”
Slater isn’t the only player, who plays virtually exclusively special teams. Brandon Bolden, Nate Ebner, Tavon Wilson and Jonathan Casillas also fall into that category — players who might be cut if they were on another team that didn’t have as much belief in special teams than the Patriots do.
“I can’t speak for any other team since I’ve never been on another team in the league. I can’t speak of how they hold their levels of importance, but I think the way — we hold every play to its highest importance,” Ebner said. “We put as much detail into the field goal as we do our red area with no time left on the clock in the fourth quarter. We put detail in everything we do from special teams to defense to offense. It’s an important phase of the game and we take it very seriously.”
O’Brien is self-admittedly hard on his players, but he has their respect and gets the most out of them. The players credit a lot of their success because of him coaching them so hard. In his 23 seasons in the league he’s coached special teams for the Browns, Ravens, Panthers, Dolphins and Broncos.
“Scott is a smart, smart coach,” Bolden said. “He has a different game plan and different schemes for every team we play. He does a good job of making sure everyone knows what they are doing.”
“He’s very hard on us,” Slater added. “He doesn’t want us to settle. He always thinks he can do better and make one more play — do something a little bit different. I think that is why we have been able to have the success that we have had because he’s constantly challenging us.”
There is a sense of confidence among the special teamer’s that they can make a big play on every given week, whether it’s a blocked punt, blocked field goal, or even a big tackle to change field position.
“I think that is testament to the work the guys and the focus and effort we put in on a daily basis,” Ebner said. “I think it is great to see.”
“It just goes to will, determination and preparation,” Bolden added. “We go through every week thinking we might get a chance to block a kick. We’ve been sticking to it, doing what we do and getting a few blocks this year.”
O’Brien takes a lot of pride in seeing his players getting the results of their hard work on the field by making big plays, such as Jones’ blocked field goal, Bolden’s punt block against San Diego, and even Vince Wilfork‘s blocked field goal in Week 16 against the Jets.
“I’m happy for those guys,” said O’Brien. “They work extremely hard. For any coach, your success comes from the players’ success. That’s the only thing you really do it for. That’s what drives me, and when you can give a plan to those guys and they can go out there and execute it and have success doing it, that’s what it’s all about. The bottom line is they’re helping you win on fourth downs or to get the game started at the half. It’s just part of the success that they’ve worked hard to get.”
With Super Bowl XLIX shaping up to be a back-and-forth, close game coming down to the wire, it’s entirely possible that one of the Patriots special teams could play a major role in deciding the outcome of the game.