Rookie Cyrus Jones sets up Patriots well with 60-yard punt return

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Rookie Cyrus Jones sets up Patriots well with 60-yard punt return

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – We can say “it’s only preseason” as much as we want, but the truth is that – at least for the Patriots – the preference is to win these games.

That was made clear by Bill Belichick when talking about rookie Cyrus Jones’ 60-yard punt return late in the third quarter.

“In the end, that was probably one of the key plays in the game,” said Belichick. “The field position gave us a chance to tack on that extra touchdown which, as it turned out, we needed.”

Jones first credited his teammates for getting him room to operate. “It was definitely great blocking and a deep punt so they were pretty separated and not really in cohesion with their coverage,” he explauned. I was able to make one cut and get upfield and play off my blocks.”

Jones eventually broke away from his cadre of blockers near midfield and looked to make a few Panthers miss late in the return. It didn’t work out. But the end result of the drive was a Jacoby Brissett touchdown pass to DeAndre Carter.  

“You always wanna score but anytime you can make a big play and get the offense down there and in good field position in a great spot it feels good.,” he said. “The touchdowns will come. I’m just gonna focus on fielding the ball and try to make a play and get upfield.”

Jones has worked hard to fine-tune his punt-fielding skills in camp. A flurry of muffs early in practices seems behind him and it’s clear the Patriots would like to see him seize return duties from Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who probably don’t need the collisions at this stage of their careers.

Belichick is high on Jones’ ability.

“If you can just get them started, most guys can make some yards on their own with the run skills and Cyrus certainly shows the ability to do that,” Belichick explained. “He’s done it and he did it tonight. In the other games as well, he’s always made a couple guys miss and he just couldn’t get enough space to get started so I thought the vice guys [the outside blockers on the punting teams’ blockers] did a good job of keeping them off him all day and letting him get a chance to get started. It was a good run but really good blocking by the return team as well.”

Belichick also slipped in some praise for the punt coverage work Friday night. That facet of special teams was not good in the preseason opener against the Saints.

“I thought we covered kicks well,” he pointed out. 'This is probably the best coverage game we’ve had, again, against a good team, a physical hold-up team and [Ted] Ginn is obviously a good quality returner so that was a good test for us.”

Jones, meanwhile, continues to play quite a bit in the regular defense as the third corner.  

How has it gone so far?

“I’m still gaining comfort,” Jones said. “That will come more and more as I get acclimated to the speed of the game and the precision of these offenses and trusting my coaching and be as prepared as I can. It’s just like anything. The more experience, the more you see, the more you’re out there, the more comfortable you’ll become.”

Jones has seen some good quarterbacks in three preseason games – Drew Brees, Jay Cutler and now Cam Newton.

“They’re so smart and so precise and they make split-second decisions and know where they want to go with the ball, you gotta be technically sound at all times and play the responsibilities so you’re in position,” Jones said. “Just go out there and do your job because you never know when it will be time to step up and make a play.”
 

Garoppolo: Get the little things corrected, or they'll bite us in the butt

Garoppolo: Get the little things corrected, or they'll bite us in the butt

This felt like a step backward for Jimmy Garoppolo. 

The preseason had been shaping up so nicely for him, too. He'd be able to ride the wave of momentum following his strong performance last week against the Bears, and carry that into Carolina, where he would take on a very good defense on the road. What better way to simulate what he'll see in Week 1 of the regular season in Arizona?

Then something happened. Garoppolo, who looked cool last week at Gillette Stadium, seemed rattled by the Panthers defense. The quarterback who hadn't turned the ball over all preseason very nearly gave it away twice. Whereas he made calculated risks in the red zone last week, this week there were head-scratchers in the same area. 

"Ups and downs," said Garoppolo, who beat the Panthers, 19-17, and finished the game 9-for-15 for 57 yards. "Just little things here and there we need to get corrected. We’ll take care of it."

Garoppolo's first third-down throw foreshadowed what was to come for the Patriots on third down Friday night. He threw what should have been an easy interception for linebacker Luke Kuechly when there was a miscommunication between him and receiver Julian Edelman. 

Edelman stopped and turned for a pass a few yards off the line of scrimmage. Garoppolo targeted him as though he was still moving, hitting Kuechly between the numbers at the Carolina 12-yard line.

The team started the night 0-for-7 on third down.

"It’s my fault. I can’t put it in the linebacker’s hands like that," said Garoppolo, who insisted splitting reps in practice wasn't to his detriment. "It’s just bottom line. Just got to be smart. It’s tight windows, tight throws. Just got to finish with touchdowns."

Later in the game, Garoppolo didn't recognize a Panthers pressure, he took a glancing blow from a defender and escaped the pocket. Rather than throw the football away, he tried to make a positive play and was stripped from behind by linebacker Thomas Davis. 

Patriots running back James White was there to pounce on the ball, and Garoppolo was fortunate to escape with his turnover column clean.  

Still, Garoppolo knows there are adjustments to make. In order to give the Patriots a chance to beat the Cardinals in Week 1, he'll probably have to play better than he did on Friday. 

“We’ll do our best to get in there,” Garoppolo said. “We have two weeks until then and we’ll work. There’s little things here and there. Overall, there’s some good things that we did tonight. 

"We just have to get the little things corrected or they’re going to bite us in the butt. We’re going to work our tails off to get to that point. We’ll get there.”

Running back D.J. Foster making a late push for Patriots roster spot

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Running back D.J. Foster making a late push for Patriots roster spot

CHARLOTTE – D.J. Foster began making his case to stick on the Patriots’ 53-man roster Friday night against the Panthers.

An undrafted pass-catching back from Arizona State who’d missed almost all of training camp with an unknown injury was pretty persuasive. He caught three passes for 33 yards, showing nice burst, carried twice for 9 and returned a punt for 16. He saw his action late in the third with fellow rookie Jacoby Brissett in at quarterback.

Foster punctuated his first reception – an 11-yard screen that Brissett (9-for-9 for 85 yards and a touchdown) – by lowering his shoulder and delivering a blow that Foster said he wanted to “get that adrenaline going.”

“It felt great,” said Foster. “It had been a long time. I was telling some guys, that was the first time I’d gotten hit since college. It felt good to get back out there. The coaches gave me a chance to get out there and show what I could do.”

James White will be the Patriots sub-back (or third down back or pass-catching back or whatever you want to call him) until Dion Lewis returns from his knee malady. But Foster showed the acceleration and quickness that made him such a productive player for the Sun Devils. With 222 receptions for 2,458 yards and another 2,355 on the ground, Foster would fit nicely in an offense like the Patriots that uses the short and intermediate passing game so well.  

He hasn’t had much chance to make a case to stick and the Patriots – with White, LeGarrette Blount, Tyler Gaffney, Brandon Bolden and Joey Iosefa all in the mix – may have to take their chances with releasing Foster and hoping he goes unclaimed so New England can bring him back for their practice squad. It’s a risk, but other teams are encountering the same issues at cutdown time. Do they pluck a player they passed on in the draft and put him on their roster ahead of players they’ve been working with since the spring?

Bill Belichick wasn’t effusive in his praise for Foster but did indicate it was a good opportunity to at least see him in game action.

“We played a couple of guys that haven’t gotten much playing time so we got a chance to look at them,” he explained. “D.J. is one of those so we wanted to give him a few opportunities to handle the ball because he hasn’t done it this year. I thought he did some good things. There are a couple of things that he could do a little better but we’ll look at the film and see how it goes. He did a couple of things with his chances out there.”

To make the most of those chances, Foster said he avoided getting too hyped before getting on the field.  
 
“Just keeping my calm and hearing the playcall and just doing the mechanics and all the fundamentals of being in the backfield (was the focus),” said Foster. "Coach Ivan (Fears, running backs coach) did a great job of keeping me mellow. I felt healthy, I felt really good. I got some punt returns, some kick returns, some special teams. I was seeking contact to get that adrenaline going.

“It’s a long process,” he acknowledged. “Talking to the veteran guys, they said it’s a long process. I knew battling my injury and come back healthy, I came back strong and I felt ready.”

We’ll see if it’s enough to carve out a niche on the roster. The cutdown to 75 players comes Tuesday.