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Tue., Sep. 01, 2015 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM EDT
Wed., Sep. 02, 2015 12:00 AM to 11:59 PM EDT
Thu., Sep. 03, 2015 12:00 AM to 2:00 PM EDT
Take Two-sday: Special contribution
Offensively New England not only exploded on the scoreboard but had a season-high 610 yards and 33 first downs. Tom Brady had by far his best day with 432 yards, four scores and a 151.8 rating. Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson all topped 100 yards and combined for the four touchdowns, with a pair for the rookie receiver. Even the ground game had its best day, as Stevan Ridley had his first100-yard performance of the year for a group that came up just shy of 200 yards rushing.
Looking back on the stats from the game, on paper it wouldn't appear that New England's special teams had a huge role in the big win. Stephen Gostkowski had just two short field goals and there were no touchdowns or turnovers in the kicking game.
But in reality Scott O'Brien's group of third-phase players had a big role in turning what was actually a tie ballgame midway through the third quarter into a high-scoring party at Gillette Stadium.
The first key play came in kickoff coverage. After New England took a 27-24 lead on Gostkowski's 32-yard field goal with 2:39 to play in the third quarter, the kicker put a high, booming kickoff up into the wind of the open lighthouse end of Gillette Stadium. Pittsburgh's Felix Jones caught the ball at the 1 and ran left across the field where New England's coverage unit was on him in a hurry. Nate Ebner and special teams captain Matthew Slater dropped the running back at the 11 after just a 10-yard return.
Backed up in their own end, Pittsburgh was able to move the ball a bit, picking up 25 yards before being forced to punt from their own 36. Without the great kickoff and kick coverage, that punt easily could have come near midfield.
Pittsburgh's Mat McBriar got off only an average punt that traveled 41 yards to the waiting Julian Edelman at the Patriots 23. The returner caught the ball on the ride side scooted quickly up the field, made McBriar miss to the inside and then avoided a corral attempt on his neck by Steelers cover guy Antwon Blake before being tackled after a 43-yard return to the Pittsburgh 34.
Edelman was actually upset that he didn't take the return all the way to the house for what could have been his first touchdown on a punt return this season.
“I put a bad move on the punter,” Edelman said. “It slowed me up, so you knew there was going to be pursuit. I kind of expected the guy (on his shoulders). I kind wanted to hopefully throw him over and keep it going. But it slowed me down. Tough one.”
Edelman may have been looking for an even bigger play, but the return set up Brady and Co. for a key score. Five plays later working on the short field Brady hit Dobson for the 17-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter that gave New England a 10-point lead at 34-24.
Over the final dozen minutes or so, the game turned into a blowout. The final score looked great and the offensive numbers were huge.
But really, it was a close game in the third quarter until Gostkowski, Ebner, Slater and Edelman made their criticial, somewhat overlooked plays in the kicking game.
“It was a big play for us,” Bill Belichick said of the punt return as well as the kickoff coverage success. “We were able to make a couple plays there and get ahead by 10 points. The returns were obviously big. Kickoff coverage, we had a good kickoff coverage play after the field goal, backed them up down there around the 10 or something like that. So, yeah, we played complementary football.”
Players on special teams may never get the attention and praise that their offensive and defensive counterparts do, especially in blowout game highlighted by so many big plays on offense and defense.
But those key plays in Sunday's win from the kicking game for the Patriots are just the type of thing that Take Two-sday is all about and why looking back on the game through the lens of the coaching tape on the Game Rewind section on NFL.com is such valuable tool for the most enthusiastic Patriots fans.