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Super Bowl XLVI Preview: Part 4

Posted on February 04, 2012 by Dan Alper

Belichick knows the value of special teams. He signed Nick Koutouvides in week 9 to sure up the Patriots coverage units.

When analyzing a football game like this one it’s all too easy to forget about the impact of special teams. We all seem to acknowledge big special teams plays after the fact, but by the time the next week rolls around the pundits are right back to talking about offensive and defensive match-ups. Maybe it’s a simple numbers game. There just aren’t many special teams plays in any given game, and the kickoff rules instituted this year have turned a significant number of those plays into non-plays.

And then a week last week comes along and reminds everyone just how important special teams are. Danny Woodhead’s fumble on the kickoff following a Raven scoring drive that gave them the lead for the first time in the game seemed to seal the Patriots’ fate. Instead New England battled back to take a three point lead, a lead that kicker Billy Cundiff had every opportunity to erase. The 32 yard try should have been trivial for Cundiff, but he missed, and New England punched their ticket to Indianapolis.

In the NFC Championship the Giants took advantage of two costly fumbles by punt returner Kyle Williams. Williams used to be known as the son of White Sox GM Kenny Williams. Now he’s known as that guy who cost the Niners a shot a the Super Bowl. Yeah, I know, you win as a team and lose as a team, but ask Cundiff and Williams how they feel about that.

There WILL be a big special teams play in this game, and it may very well decide the winner. Special teams certainly played an important role the last time these teams met. While the Patriot offense exploded for 24 points in the second half of that game, they were held scoreless in the first half. They had six possessions in the first half. Their best starting field position was their own 20 yard line. They also had drives start at the 17 and 11 yard lines, and their remaining three first half possessions began inside their own 10 yard line. It’s a lot to ask of any offense two drive 80-plus yards, and it showed on that day.

It was an all around bad day for Patriots special teams. Julian Edelman fumbled a punt which the Giants recovered and averaged only 3.4 yards per punt return on five tries. Bill Belichick used four different guys to return kicks, resorting even to putting Devin McCourty on the return unit. Edelman and Matthew Slater were also tasked with returning kicks, but the Slater experiment ended after he was able to muster on 10 yards on his only return. None of Zoltan Mesko’s five punts on the day were downed inside the 20 yard line.

As for what to expect in this game, it’s hard to say. Football Outsiders has the Patriots special teams ranked fifth overall, thanks mostly due to their strong punt and kick coverage teams. Their kick return team is ranked in the bottom ten, and their punt return unit is as average as it gets. The weighted rankings, which assign more importance to recent play, have New England ranked third.

The Giants are pretty mediocre from a special teams standpoint. Like the Patriots, their kick and punt coverage teams are strong. Like the Patriots their kick return unit is considerably below average. What separates the two teams is their field goal kicking and punt returns. The Giants were a below average team at converting field goals in the regular season, and their punt return was abysmal, with only Jacksonville and Tampa Bay fielding worse units.

Being that the game is indoors, expect very little action out of the kickoffs. We’ll see a goodly amount of touch backs, and while many have voiced displeasure with the new kickoff rules, I for one am happy about it. You don’t want to watch these two teams try to return kicks. It’s not pretty.

But special teams will swing the game for one of these teams. Whether someone becomes the hero or the goat remains to be seen. I’m going with Edelman to get loose on a punt return and break the game wide open.

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