FOXBORO — It’s a rare gift the Patriots don’t expect to get again.
In the season opener in September, Buffalo’s special teams unit committed a rare mistake that gave the Patriots an opportunity to sneak away with a come-from-behind win. Kick returner Leodis McKelvin fumbled away a late return, opening the door for a late New England touchdown and paving the way for a 25-24 Patriots win.
Mistakes from the Bills’ special teams units don’t come around all that often, and as a result, New England coach Bill Belichick isn’t expecting any more presents on Sunday from a Buffalo team that prides itself on consistent and disciplined special teams play.
“Every time we watch them they seem to be good, whether they’re playing somebody else or we’re getting ready for them,” Belichick said of the Bills’ specialists. “We say this every year and every time we play them we look at the most recent games and it’s there again.
“They step up and do it on a consistent basis.”
The Patriots have dominated the Bills of late, winning the last 12 meetings, but more often than not, the Buffalo special teams unit has handled New England easily. They’ve also done well against the rest of the league: According to legendary football writer Rick Gosselin’s formula for ranking special teams — ranking the 32 teams in 22 special teams categories and assigning them points according to their standing (1 for best, 32 for worst) — the Bills have been without peer when it comes to special teams three of the last five years.
“They have a lot of energy. They play with emotion in the kicking game. They make plays and it seems like that sparks their team,” Belichick said. “Unfortunately, we’ve been on the other end of some of those plays. I know what that’s like first-hand, but they’re very good.”
Sam Aiken, who played for Buffalo from 2003 through 2007, said the biggest constant has been special teams coach Bobby April and the way he approaches the game. April, who has twice been honored as the NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year, engages special teamers in a unique way, according to Aiken.
“The way he gets everybody in tune [is] by putting up goals as soon as you walk into the locker room — the most tackles this week, who downed the ball inside the 20, the most tackles inside the 20, things of that nature,” said Aiken, in his first year as Patriots special teams captain. “As you see, year in and year out, they’re always in the Top 10 in special teams.”
“I have a high regard for all the coaches in the league, but yeah, Bobby’s done a great job. I’ve known him for a long time,” Belichick said. “I knew him when he was at [University of North Carolina]. His teams have always played well, and I have a lot of respect for what he does.”
This season, April has struggled to pull together a quality special teams unit. Leading 2008 special teams tackler Blake Costanzo was cut in the summer, while other core special teamers have seen more time on offense and defense because of injuries to starters. In addition, McKelvin, who returned three kickoffs for 138 yards in one game last season against the Patriots, suffered a knee injury and was placed on injure reserve earlier this season. Fred Jackson has had to fill in and he doesn’t have the same explosiveness that McKelvin possesses.
But the Bills have been down players on special teams before and burned teams. They successfully executed a fake punt earlier this season, and punter Brian Moorman and kicker Rian Lindell are in the Top 10 in most major categories.
“They’re well-coached, they’re sound and they have good specialists,” Belichick said. “Buffalo isn’t the easiest place in the world to kick in, but those guys do a good job there and they take advantage of the conditions and it usually seems they are able to get more out of them than their opponents do, but they are very consistent.”
Of course, the New England special teams unit has done well as of late — since the start of the season, key stats like average kick return yards allowed and return yardage per game have improved fairly steadily for the Patriots. Aiken said he’s tried to bring some of the special teams spirit he first picked up with the Bills' April with him to New England.
“There are more and more guys who are coming along as we meet together, day in day out,” Aiken said of the Patriots special teams. “It’s great. We can be inconsistent at times, but when we do turn it on, you see the difference.”