The New England Patriots improved to 3-0 on the season after routing the Houston Texans on Thursday night, 27-0. Once again, they did so with the help of the NFL’s new kickoff rule.
Under the new kickoff rule, a touchback now gives the offence the ball on the 25-yard line. Theoretically, this should incentivise touchbacks and player safety. But through three games and 18 kickoffs, the Pats have only allowed 10 touchbacks. They have also not allowed their opposition to take the ball past the 25-yard line a single time.
Instead, we’ve seen New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski unleash “mortar kicks” — extremely high kicks that land just outside the end zone. The height of the kick gives New England ample time to get down field in coverage, while the short placement means the returner has no choice but to attempt a return.
Gostkowski did this repeatedly on Thursday night, and New England forced two fumbles deep in Houston territory. The Patriots recovered both of them, and set up their offence in the red zone. On both instances, the Patriots scored.
Here are the kicks:
Gostkowski and the Patriots have openly acknowledged that they have stopped trying to kick the ball out of the end zone since the rule change.
“Our kickoff guys are doing a great job,” Gostkowski said after the game Thursday. “It would be dumb just to kick it out of the end zone every time right now.”
“Tremendous, tremendous,” Belichick said of his special-teams unit after the game. “Field position was phenomenal. It seemed like [the Texans] had to go 90 yards every time they had the ball. Our kickoff team, once again, came up big with field position; two turnovers. That’s a very aggressive unit.”
Belichick also cited special teams, and Gostkowski’s perfect mortar kick late in the fourth quarter, as a crucial factor in his team’s upset win over the Cardinals in the first week of the season.
Unsurprisingly, we’ve seen several NFL teams copy the Patriots savviness on the kickoff. In fact, through Week 2 of the season, teams are returning the ball more frequently than before.
“Many coaches have chosen to boot balls high and short of the end zone to allow coverage teams to rush down the field and make plays on kick returners who are forced to take the ball out. Through Week 2, 38.6% of the 311 kickoffs were returned. That figure is up from the 31.6% of the 313 kickoffs that were returned last season through the same time period.”
It’s still early in the season, but the new kickoff rule is so far having the exact opposite effect the NFL hoped. Right now, it’s just another area of the game for smart coaches to exploit. Belichick and the Patriots are doing this, and right now they look like the best team in football.
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