The Patriots were punting the ball back to the Pittsburgh offense while clinging to a 10-6 lead late in the third quarter in Sunday's victory over the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium.
Due to a substitution error by the Steelers punt return unit, Pittsburgh only had ten players on the field for the play. As a result, rookie gunner Brenden Schooler was uncovered as the player missing for the Steelers was a jammer responsible for blocking Schooler on the outside.
After recognizing that Schooler had a free release downfield, Patriots punter Jake Bailey adjusted on the fly, "that was really a heads up, alert play by Jake making an adjustment before the snap and executing at a high level and taking advantage of a mistake by Pittsburgh," Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said on Monday.
Following up on Slater revealing that Bailey made the key adjustment to exploit the Steelers only having ten players on the field, Patriots special teams coordinator Cam Achord broke down the play in more detail during his weekly video conference.
"He sees Schooler is uncovered right there, so rather than pinning the ball where Gunner [Olszewski] is not going to have a chance to field it, now he's going to hit a higher ball there, a sky ball, which forces the ball to move more in the air."
"He hit a different pitch, used a different club, which left more hang time on the ball, and put more backspin on the ball, which helped contribute to the muff right there. Schools made a great play to be in front because any time you muff a punt, it's going to go down in front of you, so that's where you want to be," Achord explained in detail on Tuesday.
Thanks to Bailey and Schooler's alertness, former Patriots return man Gunner Olszewski muffed the "sky ball," and New England recovered. Schooler's recovery set the Patriots offense up on the Steelers ten-yard line, and three plays later, running back Damien Harris ran into the end zone to give the Pats a 17-6 lead. With a two-score lead, New England would hold on in Pittsburgh to earn their first win of the season.
Although the play worked out perfectly for the Patriots, Achord added that Bailey does have the option to throw the ball to the uncovered Schooler. The Pats special teams coordinator put opponents on notice: the Patriots punter does have a strong arm.
"There's definitely an opportunity to throw to him, and Jake has a good arm and can throw, so there are situations where that will definitely happen," Achord said.
As Slater routinely says each week, the goal for the Patriots special teams unit isn't just to survive the game. Instead, New England wants to make game-changing plays in the kicking game by either flipping field position, causing turnovers, or even scoring touchdowns.
With the Patriots and Steelers coming down to the wire on Sunday, Bailey's heads-up punt and Schooler's recovery certainly fell into the game-altering play category on special teams.