While special teams are overlooked by many in the NFL, Bill Belichick isn’t in that group. Special teams have been crucial for New England for years. They have excelled considerably in the last ten years or so. Jake Bailey and the punt team in New England played a big role in the 2021 season for the Patriots, for better and worse, and 2022 should show more of the same.
Why Is Punting Important?
Punting is often seen as a formality, an end to the drive that works out roughly the same every time, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. With more than half of drives ending without a score for every league team, the punt becomes a vehicle for the field position battle that can change the game. The difference between a good or bad (or even blocked) punt could change the entire course of a game.
How Is The Punt Game Looking Right Now In Foxborough?
The Patriots have one of the best punters in the league in Jake Bailey. His average punt of 47.3 yards ranked 7th among punters with a significant number of punts in 2021 and pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line 23 times. His numbers this season and the consistency across the last three seasons give reasons for promise to a team whose offense is undergoing a lot of adjustment this season. However, especially early on, it will be necessary for the punt game to be solid and not put the team in difficult situations.
However, a deeper dive into the 2021 season left something to be desired in this unit for New England. While the raw punt average ranked 7th, the net punt average was down to 30th in the league, one of the worst in the NFL. While this also boils down to punt coverage, it hints at issues in the hangtime and placement of Bailey’s punts because returners are allowed the time to gain back a portion of the punt’s yardage.
However, the most glaring issue with the punt team has to be the blocks. Three of Bailey’s punts were blocked last year, which is more than the figure for any other punter in the NFL. Of course, part of this comes from poor blocking, but in the face of poor blocking, Bailey’s relatively long three-step punt motion was too long, and he didn’t seem to adapt or do anything differently to try to avoid the block. Of course, even a muffed punt would be better than a block.
It may seem like a harsh criticism to dive so deeply into three plays, but they were three plays that played a big part in New England’s 2021 season. The first, against New Orleans, added insult to injury and sealed the fate of Mac Jones’ worst outing of the season. The second killed the momentum of what could have been New England’s first quality win of the season against Dallas. The last one, which was returned for a TD, played a huge role in ending New England’s seven-game win streak. These sorts of plays can not only be drive killers. They can be game killers.
What’s The Outlook For 2022?
As we move on to the next season, the first key point is that Jake Bailey isn’t being handed the starting job on a silver platter. Eastern Michigan’s Jake Julien comes into the league a season after rejecting an invite to the CFL as an undrafted rookie. He had excellent numbers at EMU last season, with a career-long of 78 yards, an average of over 45 yards, and only one blocked punt in his entire college career. Combining this with his relatively lower cap hit, Julien could make things interesting this summer.
While anything can happen, though, the expectation in Foxborough is that Julien will be a source of healthy competition for the 2020 All-Pro first-teamer in Bailey. Looking into this next season, the focus will be on limiting mistakes. Bailey had a great season by taking away the blocks and the special teams nightmare, the Patriots-Bills regular-season game in Buffalo. It will be partially up to Bailey and to special teams coach Cameron Achord to clean up this unit and bring it back to the force it was up to 2020.
With the patriots adding extra speed to their team overall, hopefully, the improved punt coverage team will help with the net yardage issue. Overall, if the team can function a little more cleanly on that side of the ball, the field position battle could start going New England’s way next year, which will be the best out of Jake Bailey. Again, this could have a positive effect on the entire season.
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