Gunner Olszewski’s punt return touchdown leads huge day for Patriots’ special teams

When Gunner Olszewski thought he returned a punt for a touchdown last week, he knew something wasn’t right.

Only teammates Chase Winovich and Terez Hall had met him to celebrate in the end zone. That’s because Anfernee Jennings had been called for a controversial blindside block, which nullified what would have been Olszewski’s first career NFL touchdown.

This week, there was no mistake.

With the Patriots up 7-0 early in the second quarter, Olszewski found another lane on a punt return — aided by a big block from Matthew Slater — and brought it back 70 yards. When Olszewski turned around, there weren’t any yellow flags on the field. Just teammates running at him.

“When I turned around and it felt like half the team was running on the field, I figured there’s probably no laundry,” Olszewski said. “I knew it was good.”

It certainly was, putting the Patriots up 14-0 en route to their 45-0 blowout victory over the Chargers. Olszewski had to wait a week for his first career touchdown, but it was just as sweet. And afterward, he made sure to rib Jennings a little bit.

“That was tough last week,” Olszewski said. “But all the guys, they were saying, ‘That one counts as your first one.’ They don’t count in the stat sheet, but to me, and our guys, we returned two punts for touchdowns this year. It’s not our fault the first one got called back. The game’s getting soft.

“But I took a little double peek and I was messing with Anfernee and I was like, ‘Man, I’m glad you weren’t on the field.’”

It was a huge day for Olszewski, who scored that touchdown, returned another punt 61 yards and scored his first offensive touchdown, a 38-yard touchdown reception from Jarrett Stidham in the fourth quarter. When he was informed that he became the fourth wide receiver in Patriots history — joining Stanley Morgan, Irving Fryar and Julian Edelman — to return a punt for a touchdown and catch a touchdown in the same game — Olszewski was honored but added one more stat.

“I had a tackle, too,” Olszewski said, referring to his tackle on the kick return immediately after his touchdown catch.

It was a fitting response given the Patriots’ exceptional special teams performance in Sunday’s win, which included another touchdown.

The Patriots led 21-0 with two seconds left in the first half when Chargers kicker Michael Badgley lined up for a long field goal. But Cody Davis blocked it, and Devin McCourty pounced on the loose ball to return it 44 yards for a touchdown. It put the Patriots up 28-0 at halftime and the Chargers never recovered.

McCourty, who scored on a pick-six against the Seahawks earlier this season, said he had a feeling he would score on Sunday.

“It was crazy. I knew today I was going to score,” McCourty said. “My cause, my cleats, I felt special today representing the TEARS organization for child loss (McCourty and his wife tragically lost their daughter Mia earlier this year after a stillbirth). Just knowing my wife would be back home watching and the cleats have rainbows on them and hope and love, and I felt like that today. So I knew I’d find a way to get in the end zone so she would be able to see it and the rest of my kids would see that, so it was cool. …

“As soon as I scooped it and scored, all I could think about was Cody really did the hard work and he was probably about to pick it up and I ran in there and got it in front of him, so he really made it happen and I was just lucky enough once I got it, to get in the end zone.”

It wasn’t just those plays that special teams made. Jake Bailey was again outstanding with his punts and Justin Bethel downed a punt inside the 5, which Slater called the toughest play to make in football, and the unit was dominant all day against a Chargers team that recently demoted its special teams coach. They were clearly at a disadvantage against a Patriots team that has consistently prided itself on special teams under Bill Belichick.

It was the difference again on Sunday.

“It’s huge just because we know how much time we spend on special teams, how many guys like Slater, Bethel, Gunner who take pride in their role,” McCourty said. “Like they lead our special teams unit and I think it was huge. We’ve been talking about having big returns, making big plays and I give a lot of credit to (special teams coach) Cam Achord. He’s been working his butt off this year to get us going and guys stepped up. Cody with the block and then the return team getting a guy on a guy and Gunner making the rest happen.

“That changes the game. When you can make plays like that to run one back and then end the half with a field goal block for a touchdown, that changes the game. So great work by everybody who’s on special teams.”

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