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Special Teams: Pats get tougher

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The Patriots struggled on both sides of the ball for much of last season, but one area where they performed solidly was special teams. This was particularly true early in the year before injuries forced several backup players into key roles.

Not only did Bill Belichick get solid seasons out of veterans Adam Vinatieri and Lee Johnson, but his squad also performed reasonably well in coverage and in the return game. This season, those facets should improve. Vinatieri and Johnson are both back, handling the place-kicking and punter chores, respectively. 

Vinatieri topped the 100-point mark for the fifth straight season, becoming just the third player in NFL history to do so in his first five years in the league. He connected on 27-of-33 field goal attempts and was perfect on his 25 extra points.

His short kickoffs were an occasional problem, although that was minimized by the Patriots quality coverage. The average drive start for Patriots opponents was just over the 28-yard line despite Vinatieri's low total of seven touchbacks.

Johnson enjoyed one of the finest years in his 16-year career. He notched a career high with 31 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and became the NFL's all-time punts leader with 1,154. He also had just five touchbacks.

Both figure to return but could face competition in the form of seventh-round pick Owen Pochman and practice squad returner Brad Costello. Pochman has a big leg and could push Vinatieri. The Patriots also could offer him additional cash and try to put him on the practice squad while Vinatieri plays the final year of his contract. Costello enjoyed an outstanding season kicking for the Scottish Claymores in NFL Europe and is an alternative to the aging Johnson, who tailed off late in the year.

The return game was outstanding during the first half. Troy Brown was the AFC leader in punt returns for much of the season until injuries limited his involvement in that role. He still finished fifth in the conference with a 12.9-yard average, including a 66-yard touchdown in the opener against Tampa Bay.

Free agent newcomer David Patten has extensive experience as a returner and could carve out a niche there to allow Brown to concentrate solely on his receiving duties. 

Kevin Faulk got the bulk of the work as the lead kickoff returner and averaged 21.5 yards on 38 returns. He had a long of just 40 yards and his performance also tailed off down the stretch. Wideout Curtis Jackson gave the team a lift with a 47-yard return on his first chance during a Monday night win over the Chiefs and averaged 24.8 yards on his 13 chances.

The coverage units will get a huge boost from the addition of Larry Izzo. The former Miami linebacker went to the Pro Bowl as a special teamer last year and provides a toughness that will permeate through the locker room. 

 Perhaps the most consistent player for the team last season was rookie Lonie Paxton, who handled his long-snapping duties flawlessly. However, Belichick might decide to save a roster spot and use Mike Compton, who has filled that role in the past.

Returners:

(8) Adam Vinatieri (kicker), Lee Johnson (punter), Brad Costello (punter), Troy Brown (punt returner, Kevin Faulk (kick/punt returner), Curtis Jackson (kick returner), Shockmain Davis (kick returner), Tony Simmons (kick returner)

Newcomers:

(5) Owen Pochman (R), Dan Hadenfeldt (R), David Patten (UFA-Cleveland), Walter Williams (R), Leonard Myers (R) 

Key 2000 Stat:

Lee Johnson tied for fifth in the NFL with 31 punts downed inside the opponents' 20-yard line, and tied for fourth with just five touchbacks.  

Biggest Question:

Will Belichick decide to save money and go with a youth movement to handle the kicking jobs?

Bottom Line:

The already solid coverage units figure to improve with Larry Izzo on board.

Noteworthy:

Troy Brown's 66-yard punt return for a touchdown was the Patriots first since David Meggett's in 1996.

Predicted Starters:

  • Adam Vinatieri - K
  • Lee Johnson - P
  • Kevin Faulk - KR
  • Troy Brown - PR

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