Remember 2001, when the Patriots won thanks to some big special teams plays? Big returns, big blocks, big kicks. How nice would it be to see those days again?
But the Pats' special teams are hardly a liability.
Stephen Gostkowski is a fine kicker. And although he hasn't earned the place in New England lore that Vinatieri had, he hasn't yet had the chance. Last year he hit 90% of his field goals, including a 50 yarder. He's got everything you'd want in an NFL place kicker. In fact, he's slightly better than average at kicking off, frequently hitting it out of the end zone.
Chris Hanson is equally as good at punting. He's not stunning. He's not bad. He's dependable.
Jake Ingram takes over for Lonnie Paton at long-snapper. I anticipate no problems.
In the return game, the Patriots don't have a really ferocious kick returner. I guess I miss the days of Bethel Johnson, but having a big return threat always kept games more interesting. That's perhaps the only thing I'll miss about Ellis Hobbs. Matthew Slater and Laurence Maroney are listed as the top KR men on the depth chart, but this position will see many different players.
The punt return situation is much better. And hopefully, the Patriots will be returning more punts than kicks. Although Wes Welker has never returned a punt to the house, he's averaged about 10 yards per return as a Patriot. That's a nice little boost to an already potent offense. Julian Edelman and Kevin Faulk might also return punts in certain situations, or to keep Wes Welker healthy.
In the coverage game, the Patriots are quite solid. Matthew Slater acquitted himself nicely as a special teams specialist in '08, and looks to do more of the same. The Patriots don't have much depth at linebacker, which usually means the special teams game won't be too great.
Special teams won't steal any wins for the Patriots, but it won't cost them any either.