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Tight ends may come into play

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / November 18, 2008
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The momentum is swinging in the Patriots' direction in a mid-November clash against the Jets . . . the offense has just moved into Jets territory . . . the crowd is feeding off the energy of the moment . . . the wet conditions at Gillette Stadium place a premium on ball security . . .

And then, kaput.

A costly fumble - the result of not tucking the ball in its proper place - stunts the surge.

In the 2006 season, it was wide receiver Doug Gabriel; last Thursday, it was tight end Benjamin Watson.

Each turnover contributed to a disappointing loss to a bitter rival, so one could excuse Patriots followers if they were experiencing an unpleasant case of déjà vu last week.

The miscue by Gabriel, who depending on the week was the team's No. 3, 4, or 5 receiver, put him deep in a doghouse he never exited, and ultimately led to his exit from the team that season.

Watson, the team's No. 1 tight end and a 2004 first-round draft choice, obviously will avoid such a fate. In fact, after his fumble Thursday, he remained on the field for every play, finishing with a season-high eight catches for 88 yards and a touchdown.

Still, Watson's overall performance raises some important questions about his role and the overall role of the tight end position in the team's offense.

First and foremost, when opponents double-cover Randy Moss and put their top cornerback on Wes Welker, can the Patriots count on their tight ends to consistently step up as pass-catchers and ball-securers?

Also, should the Patriots consider splitting time more evenly between Watson and his backup, David Thomas, especially in their base three-receiver package?

Prior to Thursday, the tight ends hadn't been major factors as receivers, totaling just 20 receptions through nine games. But the Jets' strategy to key on Moss and Welker opened more opportunities for tight ends, specifically Watson, and the results were mixed.

Watson was on the field for 76 plays, Thomas just 20. Watson played every snap in three-receiver packages that were utilized exclusively for the final two-plus quarters to pick up the tempo and spread the field.

Patriots coaches aren't about to reveal their plans, but assuming there are no unknown injury issues, the usage of tight ends will be interesting to monitor Sunday against the Dolphins.

Yesterday, the team added a third member to its tight end ranks, promoting rookie Tyson DeVree - whom scouts considered more a receiver than blocker coming out of Colorado - off the practice squad.

From a teaching standpoint, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels explained yesterday how Watson's fumble will be addressed.

"We talk about three points of pressure - you've got to have your forearm on it, your breast plate, your hand over the point, and get it tucked in there tight to your ribs," he said. "The looser you carry it, the more chance it has of possibly coming out on its own. Those plays could happen to anybody."

Watson did not comment on the play after the game, although it appeared that when he brought his left arm over for added security, it jarred the ball free as linebacker Eric Barton wrapped up his legs from behind. The ball was tucked in his right forearm, although not as tightly as it should have been.

For the coaching staff, it's always a fine line when considering repercussions for mistakes - Gabriel's fumble back in 2006 probably wasn't the only reason he ended up in the doghouse - and McDaniels seemed to strike a tone of leniency yesterday.

But actions often speak louder than words; consider how young cornerbacks Jonathan Wilhite and Mike Richardson have not played much on defense since struggling Nov. 2 against the Colts.

With that in mind, some extra attention at tight end - based on the up-and-down performance of Watson and the potential opportunities for tight ends to make more plays - seems warranted.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com

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