Joe Judge's influence helps return Patriots' special teams to top tier

Assistant head coach Joe Judge returned to a role with special teams and it paid immediate dividends. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Judge’s impact: One of the silver linings of the Patriots’ 0-2 start has been special teams units returning to their place among the NFL’s best. Not coincidentally, it has coincided with Joe Judge’s return to the special teams meeting room.

Judge’s impact is timely to highlight with the Patriots visiting the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

Judge called MetLife home as head coach of the New York Giants from 2020-2021; his work in the kicking game in New England from 2012 to 2019 put him on the radar for a top NFL job. He’s back in the role this season as part of a unique three-man setup with Cam Achord and Joe Houston, and the Patriots have already registered a never-seen-before blocked field goal that had many in the league buzzing, and a 43-yard kickoff return in the opener that is the longest in the NFL through two weeks.

“Joe is as knowledgeable a special teams coach, and as experienced of a special teams coach, as there is in the league. His understanding of the game, his understanding of how to call the game, how to scout a game, how to ready his players, is next-level,” longtime captain Matthew Slater said.

One reason Slater returned for a 16th NFL season was that “it would have been a hard pill to swallow” to retire after the way the 2022 season ended, the Patriots allowing two kickoff returns for touchdowns in a Week 18 loss to the Buffalo Bills that knocked them out of the playoffs.

The performance was reflective of a season-long roller coaster for Patriots special teams units, which finished 16th in Rick Gosselin’s annual rankings, a measure that head coach Bill Belichick has often cited as one he values to determine special teams prowess. New England had been 18th in 2020, a significant dip from its No. 3 ranking in 2019.

So one of Belichick’s notable offseason decisions was to give Judge more jurisdiction on special teams, assigning him the title of assistant head coach after he worked with quarterbacks in 2022.

Judge’s contributions were immediate in organized team activities in the spring.

According to players, that was when Judge gathered core members of the special teams units -- Slater, leading tackler Brenden Schooler and top free agent signing Chris Board, among them -- and delivered a message that they were charged with restoring the Patriots to the NFL’s elite.

“When he was a coordinator here, they were really good. Right now, we’re trying to get back on that track, climbing that ladder to be excellent. And to have him push us, it’s a huge contribution in that room. He’s here to make us great,” said Schooler, who describes Judge’s coaching style as “high tempo” on the field and “conversational” off it.

“He’s seen a lot of ball, whether it’s as a special teams coach, head coach, on the offensive side. He’s also played the game [in college], so he understands the hardships and what it takes to get to this level, which is huge.”

Achord, the official special teams coordinator, added: “Joe does a great job. He’s in the room with us, helping us, we’re all thinking outside the box, all bringing different aspects to the game. We have three different minds -- three is better than one -- and six sets of eyes on game day [helps you] see more.”

For Slater, Judge’s return to special teams has been a late-career gift.

“It’s been really special for me at this stage of my career, because Joe has been instrumental in the career I’ve had,” he said. “It’s been fantastic and hopefully we’ll keep it going.”

2. ‘Oh no!’ at 0-3: If the Patriots lose to the Jets on Sunday, history says their odds for a postseason berth will be long. In the Super Bowl era (since 1966), only six of 251 teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-3.

The last team to do so: the 2018 Texans, under now-Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.

One note of context: The NFL’s addition of a seventh playoff team in 2020, and 17th regular season game in 2021, increases the margin for error a bit.

3. Rain men: The Patriots have been sloppy with ball security through the first two weeks of the season (minus-2 turnover differential), and Sunday’s weather conditions call for rain in the Meadowlands, adding an additional challenge to their hopes of rectifying their issues (2 lost fumbles, 2 INTs). Under Belichick, the Patriots are 23-10 in games when it’s raining at kickoff.

4. Mac report: Here’s something few expected after two weeks – Mac Jones has thrown 96 passes, which leads all NFL quarterbacks and is the third most by any player in the team’s first two games of a season (Tom Brady with 100 in 2009; Drew Bledsoe with 98 in 1995). O’Brien was blunt last week in saying the Patriots need to get more out of the running game to balance it out.

5. Where’s Adrian?: Another surprise for the Patriots has come on defense, where veteran safety Adrian Phillips, who took over Devin McCourty’s pregame role of giving an inspirational speech to defensive backs, has been phased out of most packages in favor of Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers and Marte Mapu. Phillips has played just 30 of 129 possible snaps, and part of that might be tied to him being used on all four special teams units. Last year through two games, he had played 78 of 119 snaps on defense.

6. Pop’s response: Dynamic rookie receiver Demario "Pop" Douglas was benched on offense last week after losing a fumble late in the first quarter, and how he responds against the Jets -- assuming Belichick opens the door for him to exit the doghouse -- bears watching. Teammates Hunter Henry and Rhamondre Stevenson were among those sharing stories with Douglas this week about how they went through something similar as rookies and have confidence in him. “Hopefully he doesn’t miss as many games as me,” Stevenson cracked.

7. Grier in for Corral: The Patriots had intended to bring quarterback Matt Corral back on their practice squad once Corral returned to the team from the exempt/left squad list last week, and my understanding was that Corral arrived at Gillette Stadium with that in mind before he had a change of heart. That’s why the club officially listed Corral as a visitor last Wednesday, and later signed Will Grier off the Bengals' practice squad, with Belichick saying he wanted more depth at the position behind Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe. It’s a one-year contract through the 2023 season for Grier, according to a source.

8. When 95 = 93: When the Patriots added $2 million in playing-time incentives/bonuses to starting left tackle Trent Brown’s contract last week, they did him a solid in one area. One of the incentives for Brown to reach was 95% of the offensive snaps, which wouldn’t have been possible after he missed last week’s game with a concussion. So they lowered it to 93%, which is still within Brown's reach if he remains on the field for the rest of the season.

9. Did You Know, Part I: The Patriots’ 14-game winning streak over the Jets isn’t the longest active winning streak in the NFL. That belongs to the Chiefs, who have won 15 straight over the Broncos.

10. Did You Know, Part II: The Patriots are 2-7 in their past nine games dating to last season. Their only time losing eight games in a 10-game span under Belichick was when they went 2-8 in Weeks 1 to 11 in 2000, his first year as head coach.