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Dan Connolly: speed to burn

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / December 20, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Big men everywhere stood proud behind Patriots offensive lineman Dan Connolly last night.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 313-pound guard was the definition of rumblin’ and stumblin’ as he returned a kickoff 71 yards to the Green Bay 4-yard line with 2:17 to go in the first half. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the longest return by an offensive lineman in NFL history, and the play changed the momentum for the Patriots at a critical point in their 31-27 victory.

Connolly missed the second half with a head injury and didn’t address reporters after the game, but there were plenty of people talking about the big man’s run. The Packers called it bizarre. The Patriots’ offensive line described it as incredible.

“Dan Connolly probably has the greatest return average in the National Football League,’’ fellow lineman Matt Light said. “That was incredible. It was a heck of an effort. I couldn’t believe it when I was watching it to be honest with you.’’

The same thing went for the Packers. Safety Charlie Peprah, who had an early shot at bringing down Connolly, said he focused on trying to knock the ball loose and dismissed Connolly as a threat to take it a long way.

“I tried to go for the ball, thinking he was a big man without ball skills,’’ Peprah said. “I should have just made the tackle. You just saw a big dude rumbling down the field. That play put them in scoring position right before the half. Any time you score right before the half, you have the momentum.’’

Connolly sprinting down the sideline on a kickoff is hardly the norm. Before last night, he had returned two kicks this season for a total of 19 yards. When Connolly fields a kickoff, running back Sammy Morris said he usually takes a couple of steps before Connolly is tackled. But after a couple of steps, Morris and his teammates jumped into action to make blocks for Connolly downfield.

The Packers had just scored a touchdown that gave them a 17-7 lead when kicker Mason Crosby opted for a squib kick that bounced favorably into the arms Connolly at the Patriots’ 25.

“Normally, when the ball gets into those guys’ hands, they get their 5 yards and they move on, and he just kind of saw something and he took off,’’ Crosby said. “He made a good play. We just didn’t execute it how we’re supposed to.’’

Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said watching No. 63 sprinting toward the end zone was “bizarre.’’

Meanwhile, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady turned just in time to watch it all unfold in front of him.

“I’ve never seen anything happen so slow in my life,’’ said Brady with a laugh. “It was an unbelievable play. That really was a big play in the game . . . They won’t be kicking it to him anymore, I’ll tell you that.’’

Patriots safety Sergio Brown was among the players on special teams hustling to give Connolly a chance to get in the end zone. He came in toward the end of the play for a block that gave Connolly a couple of extra yards.

“He was moving out there,’’ Brown said. “It was exciting and adrenaline was running and we was just having fun and trying to help somebody make a play.’’

Three plays later, Brady completed a 2-yard pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez that got the Patriots within 17-14 with 1:08 left in the half.

“For a big guy, he gets a game ball,’’ said nose tackle Vince Wilfork. “To do what he did, he got us pumped. Just to see a big guy running like that. Me, I would have to take a timeout and get subbed or something.’’

It is likely a run that Connolly’s teammates won’t let him forget any time soon.

Light said you never know what could happen when you “put the ball in an offensive lineman’s hands.’’

Christopher L. Gasper and Greg A. Bedard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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