Curran: Kicking around some kickoff strategy

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Curran: Kicking around some kickoff strategy

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
FOXBORO - My name is Tom. And I'm way too interested in the new kickoff rule. (Hi Tom.) I think I will get over it. But for right now, in these nascent days of the ball being teed 15 feet closer to the opposing end zone, the possibilities seem endless. A cavalcade of onsides kicks? Scoring plunges? Soaring scoring? How will it all affect this game, this game, this game, this game? Lotta things. Lotta things. Bill Belichick is thinking about the kickoffs too. And the preseason game Thursday night against Tampa Bay will provide more data about how to best approach the normally routine play. Does a team simply have its kicker pound the ball out of the end zone? Or hang it high and let his coverage team try to pin the returner inside the 20? I asked Belichick about the "hang it high" approach.

"If you cant cover it very well, then youd probably take every touchback you can get," he said. "If you feel youve got a lot of confidence in your coverage team and your kickers ability to place the ball with both location and hang time, then you might feel differently about that. That might not be the same every game; the situation may change. Thats the thing about playing here that we have to be very aware of in the kicking game just how situations change every single week.

"If youre playing in a dome in St. Louis or Detroit or wherever, you know what its going to be every single week, so you can plan accordingly," he continued. "In our situation, because the elements affect the kicking game first before they affect even the passing game, we have a lot of situations that we have to deal with: weve got crosswinds, we kick into the wind, we kick with the wind, weve got weather conditions in addition to all the other variables of just the team youre playing and what they do and so forth. There are a lot of different options there and things that we have to consider. And the bad side of it is defensively, on the return team, we have to be ready for all of those different things, too: where theyre going to kick it and what theyre going to do and how the elements affect us. Its an interesting part of the game, it really is."

Oh, I agree. The main point of the new rule is to create more touchbacks and fewer collisions between 250-pounders going about 17 mph. But it also adds an opportunity for kicking teams to be experimental.

"I think part of it gets down to how you feel you match up against your opponent," Belichick offered. "My guess would be, with all other things being equal, Chicago would see more touchbacks than some other teams would (because of their explosive return game). But they may not because of the conditions that they play in that may not statistically show up. But I think if they played on the same field as the other 31 teams in the same conditions, if you had a chance to kick it out of the end zone or not kick it out of the end zone, you would probably choose to kick it out of the end zone, if your kicker could do that."

Of the 13 kickoffs in last week's preseason opener between the Pats and Jaguars, 10 sailed into the end zone. The Jaguars returned six kickoffs. Their starting field position was their own 11, New England's 18 and their own 17, 24, 13 and 6.

There are hidden yards in every game. And a team that is inside its own 20 after a kickoff return may be inclined to play-call more conservatively. If you have a kicker who can drop a kickoff at the goal line every time, the opportunity is there to get extra yards for the kicking team.

"Certainly, theres an opportunity for more momentum in the game, just like we saw last week in the Jacksonville game: score, kickoff, tackle them on the 11, bad punt, score again," Belichick agreed. "In two minutes, youve got a quick turn around. So, that can work both ways, too."

The guy in charge of serving up the kickoffs, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, is amenable to anything.

"If the coach wants to kick it high to the goal line, I'll do that," he said. "If he wants me to blast it and get a touchback, I'll try to do that too."

The possibilities? Endless.

Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Every Friday Tom E. Curran, Mike Giardi and Phil Perry will take your Patriots questions (Curran is sitting this one out) on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or a Friday Bag, as they call it. 

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag.

MG: Q leading off my portion of the always popular, always exciting, always (occasionally?) informative #FridayBag. I think it would be easy to think that way from the outside looking in, or knowing how callous some organizations can be, but I just don’t believe that to be the case here. Players talk. Agents talk. Hell, coaches talk. If the Pats were to operate that way, it would get around the league in a heartbeat. Then why would someone want to play here knowing they’ll be treated even more like a disposable commodity then normal? The flip side to this is actually protecting the player from himself. Guys in the last year of a deal sometimes feel compelled to play through every damn thing so they can at least say “look at me, I’m a warrior!” And on that note, I’d sit Marty Bennett next week in Denver and probably the following week against the Jets if that will help the ankle and whatever else is ailing him heal to the point where he’s a hell of a lot more effective than what we just saw versus the Rams (He was awful). Bennett’s too valuable going forward. 

MG: Lisa, my understanding is teams nominate their player and then it goes to a panel (one that includes the NFL Commish) to decide who wins for the league (It was Anquan Boldin in 2015). Can’t quibble with Rob Gronkowski being the team’s nominee this year. People have no idea how much he does for the community. Heck, we don’t even know the extent of it, but the great Don Rodman of Rodman Car Dealer fame and one of the most incredibly charitable individuals to ever grace this area said that there are few if any athletes who devote more time and effort to charitable works/foundations. I hope he wins. It would mean a lot to Gronk.

MG: You never figured you’d have to worry about the offense, did you Steve? But the season-ending injury to Gronk and now the injury to Danny Amendola does concern me. Both of those guys are incredibly reliable 3rd down targets, and in Gronk’s case, he’s usually the first or second option on 3rd down. Bennett hasn’t been able to pick up the slack because he’s clearly not healthy either. That means the Pats and Josh McDaniels will be going through a trial and error period here to best determine how to improve that number and become more efficient. I suspect more will fall on Julian Edelman, but also look for the continued evolution of the two back set with James White and Dion Lewis.

MG: Ambrose, the Pats have remained incredibly committed to the run because they don’t want to find themselves in the same spot they were a year ago, when the run game was so pathetic that neither Miami in the regular season finale nor Denver in the AFC title game paid it one mind. That means rushers pinning their ears back and smashing into Tom Brady at rates no one is comfortable with. So while I won’t be surprise if Brady throws it 45 times, I don’t think they shelve the ground game, at least in the first half. 

MG: Ok Bunk, I stole a comment of yours for the mailbag. Trying to make you famous…yes, I stand by my tweet in which I stated the Ravens and Broncos are bigger threats than the Chiefs or Raiders. Oakland’s defense would give up 40 to Brady. 45 if the Pats needed it. Or 50. I’m dead serious. As for the Chiefs, Alex Smith is not coming into Foxboro and beating this team, even with some of it’s defensive issues. And Belichick will make damn sure that rookie Hill doesn’t get many cracks at touching the football in the return game. Oh, and now the Chiefs best linebacker, Johnson, is out for the year with an Achilles. Should I continue???

MG: History tells us no, David. Brady would throw a fit and argue that he needs to play to remain sharp or iron out this problem or that problem. There’s also the possibility of a bye week looming, meaning he’d go 3 weeks without actually playing in a game. Seems like a good idea in the sense that you don’t risk a 39-year old to a blindside shot, but neither he nor Belichick would ever go for it.

PP: The running back position might be the toughest to project moving forward because there are so many injuries there and there are so many backs who come from nowhere to earn significant roles. I'll say this though: The backs they have on the roster -- not including Brandon Bolden, who has turned into strictly a special teamer after having a difficult time holding onto the football this year -- don't seem to be slowing down. LeGarrette Blount just turned 30 but is in the middle of his best season. Dion Lewis looks strong after two surgeries. James White has taken his game to a new level in his third season. I could see the same group coming back next season, but given the volatility of the position, you know the Patriots will always be scouring for talent there. 

PP: Tom E. touched on this yesterday, Big Wally. Brandon Pettigrew, who was released by the Lions on Friday, might make sense. Otherwise, there's not a whole lot out there. Zach Sudfeld? He's available. Would be an unlikely reunion, but desperate times . . . I think the Patriots will continue to roll out Martellus Bennett at less than 100 percent. I think Matt Lengel could see more work as a blocking tight end as he becomes more familiar with the system. I think we'll see more Cameron Fleming, and we could see more two-back sets with no tight ends. In my opinion, Bennett could use a rest, but I don't think it's coming any time soon. As far as Sarge's question about the hurry-up, I'm not sure we'll start to see more that. It's possible, but one of the benefits with the hurry-up is to keep a defense from substituting to shift matchups in its favor. With Gronkowski or Bennett on the field in a hurry-up situation would have even further highlighted the matchup issues they present. If either one found himself with a slow linebacker on him, the Patriots could have rushed to the line and continued...to exploit...that matchup. Without Gronkowski and without Bennett at full strength, the advantage of the no-huddle is somewhat sapped.  

PP: It's so late into the season, I'm not sure there's much in the way of opportunity for a breakout game this week, Paul. I guess the obvious choice would be Griff Whalen. If he can give the Patriots a pair of sure hands as a punt-returner, that would be a significant enough add that I might qualify it as a "breakout." Bill Belichick made it clear this morning that the team views him as more than just a returner, though, so he could see some offensive snaps in four-receiver sets and provide the Patriots with a presence in the slot. I'd deem a four-catch, 50-yard performance as a "breakout" as well. To me, that's the range of his ceiling for this week. One other name as a potential "breakout" candidate? Justin Coleman. He could be used defensively after being inactive for the last three weeks due to Eric Rowe's hamstring injury. If he's able to help slow down the combination of Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Steve Smith, that'd be a breakout in my book. 

PP: The combined record of opponents they've beaten is actually 26-57-1, including the Browns 0-12 mark twice, but now it's out there. 'Preciate you, Dave!

PP:  There's still so much up for grabs in the AFC West that it's hard to determine the likelihood of Patriots playoff matchups and where those games will be. However, without getting into the nitty gritty details, I'll just point out that it's still possible that the Patriots end up on the road in either of these cities in the postseason. On the road, Denver is the tougher matchup. Always has been a brutal place for the Patriots to play, and Denver's defense is still good enough to cause them problems. At home? I'd say, of these two teams, Kansas City would be the one that would provide the Patriots with a slightly tougher test. In my mind, they're a little more balanced and I have more faith in Alex Smith to make plays than I do Trevor Siemien.

Friday's Patriots-Ravens practice report: Richards returns to the field

Friday's Patriots-Ravens practice report: Richards returns to the field

Friday's practice participation/injury report for Monday night's Patriots-Ravens game:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
WR Danny Amendola (ankle)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
TE Martellus Bennett (ankle/shoulder)
DB Jordan Richards (knee)
LB Elandon Roberts (hamstring)
DB Eric Rowe (hamstring)
WR/SpT Matthew Slater (foot)

BALTIMORE RAVENS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
TE Crockett Gilmore (thigh)
LB Terrell Suggs (not injury related)
RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh)
C Jeremy Zuttah (not injury related)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
G Alex Lewis (ankle)

FULL PARTICIPATION
G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)