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BOSTON — Yardage is hiding from the Cowboys.
It can be found on a kickoff not returned decisively or a punt not placed directionally, landing too close to the center of the field. It can be found on a poor angle in kickoff or punt coverage, or a punt return that features too much dancing and not enough upfield running.
Total yards is a mainstream stat commonly broadcast on televisions and stadium scoreboards, measuring how each offense fares. Far less quantifiable is hidden yards, which exists on special teams, impacts field position and influences a game’s outcome.
For years, the New England Patriots have found the hidden yardage.
The Cowboys this season?
“Probably not good enough,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We’ve got to do a better job.”
This special-teams matchup at Gillette Stadium lacks the glitz of the Cowboys’ No. 1-ranked offense versus the Patriots’ No. 1-ranked defense. Few will be glued to their televisions to see how the Cowboys’ young fliers stack up against the Patriots’ more experienced coverage duo. But special teams could be the difference Sunday.
It was last week for New England.
The Philadelphia Eagles jumped to an early 10-0 lead. Three Patriots field goals in the second quarter cut the deficit to one point at halftime, and an opening touchdown drive to start the third quarter gave the Patriots the lead.
After that, their offense mustered nada.
Six drives. Six punts. Four possessions spanned four or fewer plays for less than 10 yards.
But fortunately for New England, it had special teams. The punt team, in particular, put on a show. Philadelphia took possession inside of its own 20 after each of those six punts, including once at its own 3 and another at its own 6.
For the game, the Patriots’ Jake Bailey averaged 46 net yards per punt, earning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.
New England is the only NFL team that has blocked multiple punts (two) this season. Both were returned for touchdowns. Wide receiver Matthew Slater and cornerback Justin Bethel are the fliers, or gunners, in special-teams coverage. Slater is a seven-time Pro Bowler. Bethel is a three-time selection.
Cornerback C.J. Goodwin and undrafted rookie wide receiver Ventell Bryant are the Cowboys’ fliers.
Both expressed respect for Slater and Bethel, but they look to stack up, too.
“I’ve been studying those guys since I became a special-teams guy, since this became my main job [in 2016],” Goodwin said. “I looked up to those guys as I came into the league because they were always in the Pro Bowl and whatnot. Now, they’re my peers. Now, I want to show that I’m better than them.”