There is a third phase of the game seldom talked about, but Ryan Allen and Danny Amendola brought it into discussion against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
The punter and returner ignited the New England Patriots with two plays. And while those two plays came on different sides of the spectrum in the 34-9 win, both had the same result. Both ended far from where they started.
That was the plan.
New England’s kicking game was close to letting that plan slip away after the team’s second offensive series sputtered in a three-and-out. The Lions, up 3-0 with under eight minutes to go in the opening quarter, were set to add more as Allen and the Patriots’ punt protection stepped on at their own 13.
Jeremy Ross – and his two career touchdown returns – stepped on at the Lions’ 45-yard line. Yet before he could field the punt, Allen – a two-time winner of the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top collegiate punter – would have to do the same.
He would have to do so from the end zone. And he would have to do so as the snap from Danny Aiken skipped off the turf at the two-yard line.
Allen put his glove down to the infield dirt and did so. Thenceforth, it was up to his leg to get the ball out of safety territory.
The 2013 undrafted Louisiana Tech product off a good one in the process. One seconds, two seconds, three seconds, four – the football went end over end for 4.7 seconds before it reached Ross.
And by the time Allen’s punt got there, it had traveled from the New England two to the Detroit 23, leaving the return man backpedaling for more than 20 yards.
Ross caught the football 75 yards away from where it originally went airborne.
Ross tried shift from reverse to first as he caught it, yet managed to gain only one yard before safety and special-teamer Nate Ebner wrapped him up.
The punt netted 66 yards, and the Lions responded by netting a three-and-out of their own. New England capitalized nine plays later with a four-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady to tight end Tim Wright, taking a 7-3 lead along the way.
What preceded it was integral.
“Sure was. Sure was,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Allen’s 66-yarder in his press conference after the game. “Big field position play, yup. I thought we had good coverage today. We had good kicking.”
Allen and the coverage did their part. When Amendola and the kick-return team headed out after Detroit cut the New England lead to one with 13:37 left in the second, they followed suit.
It was then that Sam Martin kicked off to Amendola, who fielded the football five yards deep in the north end zone.
Amendola took it out from the first letter of the Patriots logo. He took it straight to numbers of the 10-yard line, following the trail led by fellow wideout Brandon LaFell.
But when the second-year Patriot hit the 10, he cut towards the hashes. And a key block from reserve guard Josh Kline on linebacker Julian Stanford afforded him the opportunity to cut for more.
Running back and big-four specialist Brandon Bolden sealed the inside as LaFell sealed the outside. It was full speed ahead from there.
The 20, the 30 – Amendola swept past Martin and eluded a dive from rookie second-round linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
No. 80 saw open range and slipped back to the sideline as he passed midfield, only to slip behind the blocks of Ebner and veteran linebacker Chris White at the 40 for more.
Amendola journeyed with the convoy all the way down to the Lions’ 21-yard line before being tripped up with a shoelace tackle. The wideout, who would not catch a pass on Sunday, had traveled 81 yards over 11 seconds of game clock.
With the blocks assembling in front of him, he had brought the Patriots within a yard of the red zone.
“That was a huge play obviously to answer their field goal,” Belichick said of Amendola’s return. “Then offensively we were able to finish it off. Yeah, that was a big, big play for us.”
A three-yard touchdown run by LeGarrette Blount would finish it off just three plays later. And with that, it was a 14-6 game.
Two first-half plays in the kicking game were the reason why.