Patriots see room for improvement in return game


Patriots see room for improvement in return game

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 -- 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.

Patriots get explosive plays, key blocks from Gronkowski-Bennett combo


Patriots get explosive plays, key blocks from Gronkowski-Bennett combo

Earlier in the week, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler did an interview with the team's website and found himself in some hot water for suggesting that the Patriots straddle the line of fair play. That video has since been taken down, but Butler said something else during that discussion that may have furrowed a few eyebrows. 

He said that he believed that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was more of a receiver than a blocker.

On its face, that's not exactly an insult. Gronkowski is one of the best receiving tight ends to ever play. It's the stronger part of his game.


However, the implication was that there wasn't much to worry about when it came to Gronkowski's blocking ability. 

The All-Pro tight end may have helped jog Butler's memory that he's more than a pass-catcher during Sunday's 27-16 win over the Steelers. He and Martellus Bennett teamed up to help clear space for LeGarrette Blount in the running game, physically overwhelming Pittsburgh's defense at times. For example, during Blount's touchdown run in the second quarter at the goal line, Gronkowski and Bennett led the way, sealing off safety Mike Mitchell and defensive end James Harrison, respectively.

"That's part of the game, too," Gronkowski said. "That's part of being a tight end, too. I take pride in my blocking, too. That's part of my position. Marty did a really great job today, too, in the running game."

Part of the reason the Patriots offense has been as effective as it has with Tom Brady behind center over the last three weeks has been because of the his ability to share the football. There are stretches when Gronkowski is the go-to target, there are moments when Bennett is Brady's best option, and there are times -- like Sunday -- when Julian Edelman will be the focus. 

When the Patriots weren't running behind their two tight ends, they were sending them up the field, occupying safeties and leaving Edelman in one-on-one coverage underneath. The 5-foot-11 wideout finished with nine catches for 60 yards on 10 targets, while Bennett and Gronkowski saw just six targets combined. 

"It doesn't really matter who makes the plays, just as long as we make 'em," Patriots coach Belichick said. "So if they take somebody away or they do something to neutralize one player, then that's why we have other players on the team. It's not about featuring one guy. It's about the team winning."

"I just go out there and roll with it," said Bennett, who finished with one catch for five yards. "Wherever Tom throws the ball at, that's where he throws it. We're all just trying to get open. I thought today they took the seams away a lot so the middle of the field was open for Julian. When we got chances we came down with the ball so that's all we try to do any time we're out there.

"But today they relied a lot on us blocking. We did a great job blocking. A lot of poeple always looking at the pass catching or how many receiving yards we get, but what makes us dymanic is our ability to block and open up holes for LeGarrette."

Once the Patriots had established the run, and once they had gashed the Steelers in the short-to-intermediate range with Edelman, that's when things opened up for Gronkowski. He finished the game having caught four passes -- one in the first half -- for 93 yards and a score. 

"It's a team game," Gronkowski said. "You take away the top of an offense running down the field, Julian does a great job underneath, which is his game, which is his specialty. He does such a great job at it that you just can't let that be." 

Perhaps the Steelers had an extra set of eyes on Edelman with 6:19 left in the third quarter, when Brady hit Gronkowski for a 36-yard score on what Gronkowski called "a little bender" down the seam in single coverage. 

The Patriots got 37 more yards on a deep crossing route to Gronkowski early in the fourth quarter. That set up Blount's second touchdown run of the night -- an easy one thanks to Gronkowski and Bennett's work caving in the left side of the Steelers line.

"They were certainly aware of [Gronkowski] and Martellus, and then Julian got a lot of opportunities today," Brady said. "He hasn't got a ton the last few weeks, but today he had a lot of opportunities with the ball . . . We just gotta keep putting pressure on the defense.

"If you do that, either you're gonna make some plays or they're gonna kind of over-adjust to something. Then we got Gronk down the middle. Got Gronk back going down the opposite way, and LeGarrette punched it in. It was good to score like that."

The Patriots can score using Gronkowski in a variety of ways. Receiver. Blocker. After Sunday, no one knows that better than Butler.