FOXBOROUGH — Aaron Hernandez returned to practice Thursday, the first time he has been spotted on the field since suffering a sprained ankle in Week 2 against Arizona.
While his participation was a surprise, it would be even more of a surprise if the tight end were in uniform Sunday when the Patriots host the Broncos.
However, it is possible that Hernandez, who was listed as limited in practice, could be back for the Oct. 14 game in Seattle.
Fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski also practiced after sitting out Wednesday’s session because of a hip injury.
Gronkowski was added to the injury report last Friday and was questionable for the game against Buffalo, but played 68 of 77 offensive snaps, and had five catches for 104 yards and a touchdown.
Alive and kickin’
Stephen Gostkowski compared his job as a field goal kicker to that of a big-wave surfer, where sometimes you ride the wave and other times the wave rides you.
After missing back-to-back attempts from 49 and 42 yards in the 52-28 victory in Buffalo, Gostkowski is hoping to redeem himself Sunday.
“Have to ride the wave,” Gostkowski said. “Got knocked off the board a couple of times. Going to get right back up.”
Gostkowski made his third and final attempt against the Bills, a 30-yarder that capped a 31-point fourth quarter, and said his confidence never wavered.
“I take the same approach every week, whether it’s good or bad,” he said. “You can’t get too high on yourself when you’re doing really well, or you can’t get too low on yourself when you do bad. I just try to stay even and go back to work and focus a little harder. It’s not that I’m not kicking enough, I’m kicking plenty. It’s not that I’m not practicing [well], I’m practicing very well. It’s just a matter of execution. I have to do a better job of executing.”
Gostkowski has converted 10 of 13 field goal attempts this season. All of his misses have come from 42 yards or longer.
“I’ve missed, I don’t know, two kicks in a row maybe twice in my career, but it has happened,” he said.
“I’ve missed big kicks in my career going down to high school, and I’ve moved on from that and there’s no reason why I don’t think I can run off 10-15 in a row. It’s just a matter of focus, hard work, and execution. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Coach Bill Belichick voiced his support for Gostkowski on Monday, saying the misses didn’t come down to one man. It was more a function of the kicking operation as a whole — snapper, holder, and kicker.
“I have a lot of confidence in those players — Danny [Aiken, long snapper], Zoltan [Mesko, holder], Steve. We’ve made a lot of them,” Belichick said. “Unfortunately we’ve missed a few, but we’ll keep working at it and try to improve it — coach it better and execute it better.”
Said Gostkowski, “I try to take the positives out of what happened. The kicks I did miss, they weren’t by much. It’s just a matter of fine-tuning. My leg strength feels great. I’m crushing the ball on kickoffs. I’ve just got to pay a little more attention to detail, but things will work out. I’ve been working hard and I wouldn’t change anything in the way I prepare. I’ve just got to focus and execute better.”
Making an impact
Brandon Spikes relishes the opportunity to energize his teammates with a big play, such as the hit he made on the Bills’ Fred Jackson in the fourth quarter, which caused a fumble and led to Stevan Ridley’s 2-yard touchdown run and a 35-21 Patriots lead.
“The whole time I’m on the sidelines, I’m always preaching to somebody, ‘Make a play, don’t sit back and wait for the next man to do it,’ ” Spikes said. “When one guy makes a play, it goes through the whole defense. You can feel the energy and see it and you just play well.”
Can big hits lead to intimidation?
“Absolutely,” Spikes said. “I don’t try to do anything illegal, but I try to make a point. When I hit a guy, I want him to get up and go, ‘Oh, that was Spikes who hit me.’ ”
Spikes, a third-year linebacker, was credited with 11 tackles against Buffalo, and forced a fumble at the end of the first half that kept the Bills from building a two-touchdown lead.
Jones top rookie
The NFL named Chandler Jones defensive rookie of the month for September. Jones started all four games, and has been credited by the coaching staff with 19 tackles (seven solo), three sacks, five quarterback hits, and two forced fumbles, the first of which, against Tennessee in the opener, was recovered by fellow rookie Dont’a Hightower and returned for a touchdown.
Jerod Mayo was the last Patriot to be named defensive rookie in the month when he was recognized in October 2008. Mayo went on to be named defensive rookie of the year.
Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was named offensive rookie of the month.
They have their limits
Hernandez and Gronkowski were among 13 players limited Thursday, a list that includes Tom Brady (right shoulder), Logan Mankins (hip/calf), Hightower (hamstring), and Brandon Bolden (knee). Ras-I Dowling was among those who did not practice; his absence was non-injury-related. Julian Edelman (hand) and Steve Gregory (hip) also did not practice . . . The Patriots had been in full pads for the first four Thursday practices of the regular season, but were in shells (soft pads) and shorts this Thursday.