By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
If the Patriots do end up winning Super Bowl LIII, special teams linebacker Albert McClellan will go down as one of the key additions.
Special teams coverage was an issue for much of the regular season, as the Patriots finished 26th in the league with 24.6 yards allowed per kick return. Improvement in that area was negligible after McClellan joined the fold, but it did drop from 25.4 yards per kick return in Weeks 1-9 to 23.4 from Weeks 10-17.
McClellan's real impact came in punt return coverage. In the first nine games before signing McClellan, the Patriots allowed 12.9 yards per punt return. In McClellan's seven games, they cut that number in half, allowing just 6.8 yards per punt return.
As good as McClellan was on special teams in the regular season, the former Raven's impact on those units really paid off on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers. After second team All-Pro punt returner Desmond King had a rare muffed return, McClellan pounced on the rolling ball and grasped it with both hands mere inches before it bounced out of bounds.
The replay showed rather definitively that McClellan made the recovery, so it was an easy challenge won by Bill Belichick to give the ball back to the Patriots.
Sure, it was 28-7 at the time and it already felt like the Chargers were just about cooked before the game even hit halftime. But McClellan's fumble recovery, which led directly to Sony Michel's third touchdown that made it 35-7, served as a final dagger of sorts.
"I mean you dream of making those plays," said McClellan after the game. "You just have to be ready when those opportunities come. For that play that we’re talking about, the opportunity was there. It was either that or pitch the ball back in to [Kyle] Van Noy, and it felt like I was under control enough. I felt like there were more Chargers players around so I really couldn’t tell who to throw it back in to. So I just took the opportunity to go, and it came out the way it came out."
McClellan will need to be a key special teams player once again in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, when they face the Kansas City Chiefs and supremely dangerous punt returner Tyreek Hill (10.7 yards per punt return, 7th in NFL). The Chiefs finished third in the league with 11.9 yards per punt return in the regular season. The Patriots had the best possible strategy to stop them in their first matchup in Week 6 - they didn't punt at all.
But if they do end up having to punt on Sunday, McClellan's impact on the Patriots' improved special teams is a good sign for their chances in that third phase of the game.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].