FOXBORO -- Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien didn't waste any time making his presence felt on Thursday. He could be heard across the practice field as he coached kick return blockers just a few minutes into the day's practice session.
"Drop your weight," he screamed, "and move him!"
Though it was early in the afternoon, this drill was more than a warm-up. He was teaching, and there was an urgency in his voice as he demanded that the big men in front of his returners perfected their technique on pad-wielding defenders.
"I want to hear the pad," O'Brien bellowed.
Special teams has always been an area of concern in New England. Head coach Bill Belichick is usually quick to emphasize that their are three phases to the game, not two. But in the last year, the kick return game has received extra attention because there has been significant room for improvement.
The Patriots were 29th in the NFL last season in yards per return at 21.4.
Kick returns in general were down to 53.5 percent year -- lowest in league history according to CBSSports.com -- because of a rule that moved the kickoff line five yards forward. More kicks were returned in the colder months, Belichick explained on Thursday, but that still didn't help the Patriots' performance.
No matter the weather, he wasn't pleased with the results from their return game.
"We didn't return them very well in any conditions at any time, and still haven't based on the New Orleans game," Belichick said. "That's obviously an area that we can improve in that we have worked hard in, but based on the results still need to do a lot more work on.
"It's an important area of the game, a big momentum play, a way to answer the opponent's score or the start of the half, whatever the situation is there. It's a big play in the game an an important play in the game. We put a lot of stock in that, as we do every play."
The Patriots have tinkered with their kick returners since return specialist Brandon Tate left before the 2011 season. Matthew Slater has seen time as a returner, as has Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman. In recent practices, it appears Donte' Stallworth and Shane Vereen have been the top pair asked to return kicks.
Stallworth is one of the faster players on the team -- when he came into the league, he ran a 4.2 second 40-yard dash -- while Vereen is a shiftier runner, who has shown good vision in limited action.
Belichick was asked Thursday for his thoughts on Jeff Demps, a rookie free agent and Olympic sprinter, who plans to play football this season. Demps' speed might make him an immediate candidate to return kicks wherever he lands.
The Patriots scout every player, Belichick said. But he noted that Demps wasn't at the combine and didn't have a spring workout.
"He's a running back, he's returned kicks, he's fast," Belichick said when asked for a scouting report. "I'm sure you could dig that out."
It remains to be seen if Stallworth, Vereen, or someone unexpected -- like Demps -- will be the solution to New England's return issues. Whoever the Patriots call upon will receive plenty of instruction -- and hear plenty from O'Brien -- as Belichick seems intent on improving that element of his team's game.