Patriots see room for improvement in return game

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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 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.

Patriots release DT Darius Kilgo, reportedly sign WR Griff Whalen

Patriots release DT Darius Kilgo, reportedly sign WR Griff Whalen

The New England Patriots have announced that they've released defensive tackle Darius Kilgo. 

The move creates an opening for wide receiver Griff Whalen, who they have reportedly signed to a one-year deal, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

Kilgo, a sixth-round pick out of Maryland in 2015, did not make an appearance for the Patriots after being claimed off waivers from the Broncos last week. He played 81 snaps for Denver this season.

Whalen, 26, played in two games for San Diego in 2016 where he caught two passes for a total of 22 yards. 

The former Colts wideout is perhaps best remembered in New England for his part in Indianapolis' disastrous fake punt against the Patriots last season.

 

 

 

John Harbaugh: Ravens’ trickery different than Patriots ‘deceptive’ formation

John Harbaugh: Ravens’ trickery different than Patriots ‘deceptive’ formation

FOXBORO – John Harbaugh explained on Thursday the difference between the rules loophole his Ravens exploited recently and the one the Patriots exploited in the 2014 AFC Divisional Playoff Game that caused him to cry, “Foul.”

What it boiled down to? Everyone knew about the loophole the Ravens took advantage of when they committed an en masse holding penalty at the end of the game against the Bengals. 

Nobody had seen what the Patriots successfully pulled off when they made eligible receivers ineligible and vice versa and went on a touchdown drive that changed the tenor of the game.

“You’re right. I don’t want to get into all that,” Harbaugh said when I asked what the difference was. “That’s all been hashed out. I believe what I believe and I think it’s all been proven to be right.

“The point about [the punt hold] is, it’s been talked about, it’s been looked at, it’s been something that’s been used for 20 years so it’s nothing new,” he explained. “It’s nothing that hadn’t been addressed before by officials or the competition committee.”

Harbaugh said that, in Super Bowl 47, his Ravens used the tactic and his brother Jim, coach of the Niners, took it up with the Competition Committee. John Harbaugh supported the change, he said. The league declined.  

“Everybody knew about that so it didn’t create an unfair advantage for anybody,” said Harbaugh.

LISTEN: New Quick Slants podcast w/ more stories of Ravens antics

After the Patriots beat Baltimore in a tremendous game, Harbaugh was in a snit in his postgame press conference alleging the “nobody’s ever seen that [eligible-ineligible trickery] before.” He said the play was “illegal” and “deceptive.”

I mentioned that Alabama had run the play in a nationally televised game against LSU and that the Titans had done the same thing on a game-ending play against the Jets a few weeks earlier.

Aside from whether or not the information was accurately communicated by the officials, the tone of Harbaugh’s comments left little room for interpretation. He indicated the Patriots were underhanded and that his comments seemed to discredit New England.

“That was not the intent and if you go back and read my comments at the time and the tone of it anybody that takes it that way is taking it the wrong way,” said Harbaugh. “That was not the point of it at all. You had an eligible receiver that wasn’t identified and an ineligible receiver that wasn’t identified as such. The official had no way to identify that for the defense so there was no signal or any other way that they could do that. That was something that was addressed the very next week. If somebody wants to look at it some certain way, that’s not my concern.”

When I offered that referee Bill Vinovich not only identified Shane Vereen as being ineligible but added, “Don’t cover 34…” over the stadium mic, Harbaugh wasn’t having it.  

“That’s not something that had ever been gone over,” he insisted. “Players were never taught don’t cover that player. When you’re on the field, you can’t hear that microphone. That’s not something you can even hear or are listening for. The next week there was a tweak.”

Indeed there was. And not just with the officials then being on the hook to make more detailed announcements. The further tweak, perhaps spurred by the formation chicanery and Tom Brady’s recommendation that Baltimore “study the rules” came when the Ravens passed on intel to the Colts for the AFC Championship Game. One of the recommendations from Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg was to watch that the Patriots’ sideline staff didn’t monkey with the kicking balls. That was included in a letter to NFL Operations man Mike Kensil along with an allegation that it was “well known around the league” that the Patriots deflate footballs before the game and that the league needed to keep an eye on that.

Harbaugh hasn’t hidden from the fact he found Brady’s comment offensive.

"I was pissed off," he said this past summer. "It was uncalled for. And the rules are deeper than that, and I know the rules, and I stand by why that play shouldn't have been allowed...So yeah, that should never have been said."

He has, however, disavowed any talk by his staff about the Patriots allegedly deflating footballs. "Any conversation that was had with the Colts had nothing to do with deflated footballs, which is what we've been saying since the very start," Harbaugh said in 2015. "I know that we've answered the questions from the beginning to the end very simply. Our yes is yes. Our no is no. We've answered questions directly and honestly and straightforward from the start."

Whether the Patriots’ formation plays and the Ravens response to it led to a $30M investigation that hijacked the NFL’s attention for 20 months and resulted in a four-game suspension for Brady is still not definitively known. Could Rosburg and the Colts equipment man have possibly discussed kicking ball chicanery without sharing notes on the belief the Patriots deflated footballs? Rosburg and former Patriots defensive coordinator and current Ravens coach Dean Pees were both spoken to by investigator Ted Wells. What did they offer

Just like everything else between Ravens and Patriots, it’s complicated.