When they line up against the Bills for the kickoff of their first regular season game, some of the Patriots are bound to have butterflies in their stomachs - but not just because they'll be setting the tone for the entire season.
"It's a big challenge for us," said special teams captain Larry Izzo of the Patriots special teams unit. "We're going to need to play at a high level to help our team win. We do every week, but especially with a team like this."
The Bills special teams unit is, perhaps, the most well respected crew of its kind in the NFL.
In yesterday's press conference, coachBill Belichick called the Bills special teams group "one of the best in the league and overall probably right at the top of the league."
"They have the best kickoff returner in the league. They have two good kickers. They lead the league in gross and net punting. They have good coverage people. They're strong across the board with their core players, with their specialists and their coach. So that is a pretty formidable group."
The kickoff returner Belichick was referring to is Terrence McGee. In 2005, McGee set Bills records for most kickoff return yards in a career (2,921), most career kickoff return touchdowns (four) and career kickoff returns (106).
McGee also led the league last season with an average of 31 yards per kick return.
The Bills punt returner is Roscoe Parrish, who averaged 13.3 yards per return last season, which would have led the league as well, but Parrish didn't have enough returns to qualify.
"I just want to be successful on special teams, period," said Parrish. "Last year we finished No. 1 on special teams and we just want to go out and finish No. 1 again this year."
Buffalo's 26.6-yard kick return average ranked first in the NFL thanks to McGee and Parrish.
Kicker Rian Lindell ranked second in the AFC last year with 29 made field goals, converting nearly 83 percent of his field goal attempts. The 113 points he scored for the Bills last season was tied for sixth-most in the AFC.
Punter Brian Moorman and long snapper Mike Schneck both earned Pro Bowl trips last year when Moorman finished the season with the highest gross punting averages in the NFL (45.7).
Lindell and Moorman will do all they can to keep Patriots returners Willie Andrews, Laurence Maroney, Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk from fielding the ball in time to make moves and get downfield. The Bills coverage units will likely be waiting should those returners have time to run.
Special teams monsters Josh Stamer, Sam Aiken and Mario Haggan finished the season with only eight defensive tackles among them. That may be because they were so tired from recording a combined 70 special teams tackles. Haggan, who led the team with 25 of them, also led the team in special teams tackles this preseason with four.
In yesterday's press conference, coach Belichick mentioned that he's known Bills head coach Dick Jauron since "pretty early in his career" when the Pats coach was a member of the Detroit Lions staff in 1976 and 1977 and Jauron was a safety.
"Dick was a very athletic guy. He played free safety. He returned punts and was a very intelligent player. He kind of quarterbacked the secondary. We ran a fairly complex defense in Detroit," Belichick said.
Belichick also spoke of special teams coach Bobby April. "I've known Bobby a long time, back when he was at SC and through his career in the league," he said.
With all the changes taking place under Jauron: players, coaches, offensive and defensive schemes, etc. -- if there's one place that the Bills hope to see little deviation, it's in April's special teams unit.
Coach April has been with the Bills for three years, and was promoted from special teams coordinator, a title he held for 11 years at four different franchises, to assistant head coach/special teams for the 2006 season. The change came after a second very successful season for April after arriving three years ago.
Last season with April at the helm, Buffalo's special teams finished first in the NFL in four categories – kickoff return average, average drive start, gross punting average and net punting average.
In 2004, April was voted Special Teams Coach of the Year by his peers.
Tedy Bruschi, Chad Jackson, Nick Kaczur and Stephen Neal all returned to the practice field today – at least the portion available to the press. Bruschi has been out since training camp with a broken right wrist and was wearing what appeared to be a cast. Jackson has suffered from a hamstring injury, missing all of the preseason. … Boston.com is reporting that arbitrator John Feerick of Fordham Law School has delayed a grievance filed by the NFL Players Association on behalf of Patriots holdout wide receiver Deion Branch. ... Wideout Doug Gabriel arrived from the Raiders in such a hurry that his belongings are just catching up to him. He had two large boxes waiting for him at his locker. … Practice squad wideoutKelvin Kight was issued number 19 today, opening up his old number 2. … Lone PUP list memberPatrick Pass had a whole bag full of PSP games and movies sitting in front of his locker today. Apparently the hand-held console isn't just for little ones – Pass is a seven-year veteran. … Maroney was wearing an Ohio State hat in the locker room, while Mike Vrabel sported a purple Minnesota one. Long snapper Lonie Paxton asked Vrabel if he'd lost a bet, pointing to the hat, and Vrabel responded, "He pulls for the Buckeyes, I pull for Minnesota," nodding at Maroney. … Paxton proudly displayed a third-place trophy in his locker today, which he said he won in a go-cart race, though Wesley Britt said the trophy was for "being the man."