Friday, November 7, 2008

Belichick sees special value in special teams

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has a well-deserved reputation for having a dry public persona; he often seems to view meetings with the media the way he views a trip to the dentist. When he has a chance to warm up to a topic, though, the engaging side of his personality begins to emerge.

On Friday morning at Gillette Stadium, Belichick opened his press conference with effusive praise of the Bills' special teams -- kick coverage and kick blocking in particular.

"With Buffalo, they're very, very explosive in that phase," he said. "The more you watch them in the kicking game, the more appreciation I have for what they do in a week-in, week-out basis. It's something that doesn't get a lot of attention..."

Then he smiled at the assembled notebooks and cameras.

"... if anybody is looking to fill up some space."

Some topics on which Belichick touched, the tone of his voice far livelier than it normally is for, say, the 1,000th straight question about the way Matt Cassel progressed:

How the Bills block field goals
"They get them inside with Langston Walker. They get them outside with (Donte) Whitner and (Jabari) Greer or (Ashton) Youboty, whoever their edge guys are. It's not always the same guys. They get them inside with (John) Wendling, who jumps over the line. They haven't blocked eight kicks, but they're close. They're this far away on several of them. They got one last week, two weeks ago, whatever it was, with Walker. It's not one thing. It's not, 'We've got to get this guy.' It's not just one guy. You've got to get a bunch of them."

The Bills' ability to plug in new players on special teams and stay successful
"It doesn't matter who it is, and it's not always the same thing, but there's always production. ... Last year, we were trying to block Sam Aiken. This year, we're trying to block Wendling and (Jon) Corto and (Bryan) Scott and (Blake) Costanzo and those guys. You can go back through the last four or five years and just change the names, but there's still a lot of production. The one constant, of course, has been the kickers. But this year, they lost (Roscoe) Parrish, and we all say, 'Well, this guy's one of the best returners in the league,' and they put (Fred) Jackson back there, and he's averaging 13, 14 yards a return, or whatever it is. Before that, they had Nate Clements, and we all said we were glad to get rid of Nate Clements so we don't have to worry about him anymore, and now it's Parrish. It doesn't really matter -- at least, it doesn't seem like it -- it doesn't really matter who they have doing what. It's pretty good."

Directional kicking
Some teams counter a dangerous kick returner with kicks to a specific side of the field with an eye on cutting down on the options that returner has. It can be especially effective against a player who needs a little bit of open space to break tackles or run away from would-be tacklers. But there are some drawbacks, too -- and that doesn't just include the flag that comes with accidentally kicking the ball out-of-bounds.

"It creates a lot of field somewhere else, so if they bring it all the way across the field, you're defending a lot more space. In other words, if you kick it long enough or you kick it low enough where they can hold you up long enough to get back there, sometimes you don't solve a problem, sometimes you create one."

Directional kicking also has to be executed well to be effective. If the entire team converges on one half of the field and the ball sails into the middle, it could mean an ugly result.

"It's hard to tell all your coverage players to all go to one spot, because you can't always get the ball kicked where you want it. It's hard enough to kick the ball high and long and straight, and now you're talking about trying to hit the corner of the green and carry the bunker and all that. If the ball's not over there and you send everybody over there and the ball ends up down the middle -- or, God forbid, out of bounds on a kickoff... It's hard to place the ball perfectly right where you want it in the punting game, and even on kickoffs. You can sometimes favor a side, but it's not 100 percent that the ball's going to be over there. ... Sooner or later, those teams are going to test you out and try to come back to the big side, the long field, and if the ball's not all the way over there and they have that on, you could be giving up a big one."

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