#Patriots Must Fix Fumbling Woes on Special Teams

It is difficult to poke holes in a team that has won 15 of its first 17 games, but if there is one for the New England Patriots it’s their return game on special teams.

The Pats have combined for 11 fumbles on either kickoff or punt returns this season. The most by a team in a season in the last 10 years since the 2006 Chicago Bears coughed the ball up 16 times in those situations.

It has been a revolving door for the Pats as they’ve looked for a consistent returner on both kickoffs and punts after rookie and so-called “return specialist” Cyrus Jones fumbled the football a league-high five times in the return game.

The Pats have gone through four different players on punt returns, and three of them (Jones, Amendola, and Edelman) have fumbled at least once when given the opportunity. Bill Belichick has also been searching all season for a reliable kick returner as well. As the team has had nine different players return kickoffs that have produced a league-high three fumbles on those returns.

The sheer number of fumbles on returns is troubling enough, but the situations in which they’ve occurred have directly affected the course of games.

The Patriots win over the Houston Texans in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs was similar in this regard to the team’s victory over the Baltimore Ravens last month.

Against Houston, the Patriots held a comfortable 14-3 lead in the second quarter. Tom Brady’s first interception of the game set up an easy Texans field goal to make it 14-6, but Dion Lewis’ costly fumble on the ensuing kickoff set the Texans up on the Patriots 12-yard line, and two plays later the Texans made it 14-13 making it a competitive game when everyone was expecting a blowout.

Although the expectations against Baltimore were different, the Patriots breathed life into another opponent when they fumbled on a punt return and kickoff return on consecutive possessions. The Pats held a convincing 23-3 lead prior to the miscues, but the two blunders led to back-to-back touchdowns for the Ravens putting them back within one score.

Bill Belichick’s team was able to hold on to win in both games, and they’ve miraculously only lost four of the 11 fumbles they’ve put on the ground on returns this season, but as the competition gets stiffer the odds of a major turnover on special teams costing them a championship increase dramatically.

Protecting the football is typically a calling card of a Bill Belichick coached team, and the Patriots did set an NFL record for the fewest interceptions in a 16-game season with just two, but fumbling on offense has been a problem for many Pats ball carriers this season.

In fact, the Patriots have fumbled a total of 29 times this season, which is tied for most in the NFL with the 49ers. The 29 fumbles trail only the 2001 (32) and 2006 (31) seasons for the most by the Pats in the Belichick era.

If the Patriots want to return to the Super Bowl for a record ninth time with a win over Pittsburgh on Sunday, they’ll have to take better care of the football.