Patriots special teams will face unique challenge this Sunday in Dallas
No unit on any football team has more change to deal with from stadium to stadium than special teamers, who have to adjust from building-to-building to different wind patterns, sightlines, footing, and occasionally more.
Nowhere in the NFL does that ‘more’ category come into focus than at Dallas’ AT&T Stadium. Specifically, because of the 160-foot-by-72-foot video board that hangs 90 feet above the field.
For a team known for turning over every stone and considering every angle in game prep, the impacts of the video board in Dallas should be no different for the Patriots. It’s something they’ve faced just once before – the Patriots lone game in Dallas since AT&T Stadium opened was in 2015. The special teams coordinator for New England that day? Joe Judge.
As Judge’s unit prepares the special teams units for this Sunday’s game against the Cowboys, it wouldn’t be surprising if they take the video board into account at least to some extent. That’s true for both the punter and the returners.
While it doesn’t happen often, that video board can turn into an obstacle for punters. Since AT&T Stadium opened in 2009, the video board has been hit by a punt four times (officially, we’ll come back to this in a bit), including twice in the last two years. In addition, some punters over the years have said that just the idea of hitting it creates another challenge, posing something they don’t typically have to think about during a kick.
For New England Patriots rookie punter Bryce Baringer, this is a new kind of challenge. Ahead of his first trip to Dallas this Sunday, Baringer said he’s never kicked in an environment that poses that kind of obstacle before.
“No, never,” Baringer said on Wednesday. “When I was in college, the only stadium we played in NFL-wise, we played in Levi [Stadium in San Francisco] and then in Atlanta. Obviously those are – one is indoor, but it’s huge. But, no.”
It’s not unrealistic to think that – if he wanted to – Baringer could knock one off the video board if he wanted too. Since OTAs he’s displayed an ability not only to put the ball impressively far, but impressively high as well.
Despite that, Baringer says he doesn’t plan on doing anything different this week in preparation. Despite the 25,000 square foot video board overhead it’ll just be business as usual this week.
“I’ve just got to trust my ball and hit my ball and, if it hits it, it hits it. Hopefully it won’t be a huge problem,” he said. “Obviously it’s cool. I know some of my friends in the past have gone in there and practiced and been like ‘I’m going to try and hit it,’ but, no, it’ll be cool.”
Baringer said ultimately though, he’s not too concerned if he gets a hold of a kick enough to reach the board. “If we hit it, it’s a redo [of the] down. You have to redo the punt,” he explained. “I think it’s just an object that’s there. I’m just going to try and stick to my process and just hit my ball.”
The ‘redo down’ rule has happened all four times the scoreboard has officially been hit. In that instance, the play is treated as an ‘inadvertent whistle.’ Of the four times the rule has been called, the ball has hit the scoreboard squarely. It bounced straight down, and the refs blew the play dead. But what if the ball just grazes the scoreboard, and the refs can’t tell?
That brings us to Patriots safety and punt returner Jabrill Peppers, who unlike Baringer is no stranger to the scoreboard. During his time with the Giants Peppers played two games at AT&T Stadium, returning a total of two punts. When asked about how the board impacts returners, he shared an interesting story.
“I actually had one hit the scoreboard,” Peppers recalled. He explained that the ball glanced off of the bottom of the board very slightly – not enough for the refs to notice, but enough to impact him as a returner. “It just scraped it, but it changed [the trajectory],” he said, adding that it caused him to have to quickly adjust under the ball on the fly.
Peppers experience in that regard could help the Patriots this week. With starting punt returner Marcus Jones on IR, Peppers was one of two players to fill in that spot for the Patriots last week along with rookie wide receiver Pop Douglas. It was Peppers’ first time returning a punt in a regular season game in two years – he returned two for a total of 25 yards.
One more thing to know – whether or not the ball hits the scoreboard is actually a reviewable play, and can be challenged by coaches. Like any other challenge though, there would need to be conclusive evidence. But if a returner really struggled to read a kick and muffs a punt, it’s something that the coaching staffs can look at.
Whether is as the punt team or as the return team, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the video board come into play on Sunday. If it does, expect the Patriots to be ready.