FOXBORO — For a team that prides itself on its special teams play, what happened to the Patriots on Sunday was inexcusable.
Four special teams penalties — including two on special teams captain Sam Aiken. A game-changing, 43-yard return from New York's Leon Washington. An average of 29.3 net yards per punt from Chris Hanson. Just three total yards in punt returns. And because of poor returns and good work by their Jets counterparts, eight of New England’s 11 drives started at or inside the Patriots' 25-yard line. ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ¢ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ¨
Stephen Gostkowski’s three field goals aside, as bad as the Patriots were in other phases of the game, the special teams must also bear a sizable chunk of the blame for Sunday’s loss to the Jets.
“We need to do a lot of things better than we did [Sunday] down in Giants Stadium: coaching, playing, offense, defense, special teams, big guys, skilled guys, you name it,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “[There are] too many little things that need to be better.”
It’s a strange year for New England’s special teams unit. Many of the stalwarts of the last few seasons — coach Brad Seely, long snapper Lonie Paxton, kick returner Ellis Hobbs and special teams captain Larry Izzo — are no longer with the Patriots, having moved on to other teams and other jobs. The continuity that was one of the hallmarks of New England’s special teams success is no longer there.
Making that transition even more difficult is the fact that the Patriots certainly have been tested early — Washington along with Buffalo return man Leodis McKelvin are two of the best in the game. As a result, Patriots opponents have had an average starting field position of the 30-yard line after a kickoff, the second-worst average in the league.
“This week we have to bounce back,” Aiken said. “Execute in every phase. And that’s punt, punt return, kickoff, kick return, field goal and field goal block. Just take control of all of those phases.”
One player who has done his job more often than not is Aiken. Belichick said he’s done well stepping into the “void” created by the loss of those veteran players, particularly Izzo. According to Belichick, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Aiken was a “nearly unanimous” choice to replace Izzo as special teams captain.
“He had tremendous support from all [areas] on the team — I think that was something that he’s earned through his performance, his hard work and attitude toward his role in the kicking game,” Belichick said of Aiken, who had three special teams tackles on Sunday. “He’s really on top of things.
“We ask him to do a lot of things for us. He works hard at them and he does a good job. I think he’s done an excellent job at providing leadership and direction — the right attitude for the players that are on the special teams unit. He represents them, and I think he represents them very well.”
Aiken is a 6-foot-2, 215-pounder out of North Carolina. A wide receiver in name only — in eight years in the league, he has just 27 receptions — the 28-year-old made his mark as a special teams ace early in his career. A fourth-round pick by Buffalo in 2003, he was let go by the Bills after the 2007 season.
The Patriots picked him up before the start of the 2008 season, and he quickly became an important part of the special teams unit. When Izzo left after last season in free agency, Aiken was a natural choice to fill his shoes.
This is the first year in his professional career that he’s been named a captain, and Aiken is taking his new role very seriously.
“I don’t want to say there’s more on my plate,” he said, “but I just have to stay on top of my job in terms of more film study, meeting one-on-one with a special teams coach and knowing what the game plan is before we actually go out there and practice,” he said.
“To me, it’s like leading troops. Once they see that you’re actually doing what you’re supposed to do, they just fall in line right behind you. We do it all together.”