|DEVIN McCOURTY Situational returner|
Return game needs to be kicked up a notch
There are 29 teams in the NFL with a kickoff-return average better than the Patriots’.
Coach Bill Belichick doesn’t like the way the return unit is performing - it is averaging 20.8 yards - and he has shuffled a few players into the returner role.
“Our return game is not producing to the level that we would like it to be at,’’ Belichick said. “It’s not reflective of any one individual - that’s everybody.
“We’re not getting enough out of that. We’ve been productive there in the past. That should be a solid area of our game that we should be getting more out of than what we are, so we all just have to work harder to bring that level up.’’
The rules were adjusted this season, moving the kickoff line up 5 yards to the 35. Player safety was at the center of the decision, but it also meant returners had to be savvy about when to bring the ball out of the end zone.
With more touchbacks expected, it seemed the kick returner role might become less important. The Patriots released 2009 third-round pick Brandon Tate, their leading kick returner from last season (25.8-yard average), Sept. 3.
This season, Julian Edelman has handled kickoffs, along with Matthew Slater. Against the Giants Sunday, Devin McCourty and Danny Woodhead also were involved.
The Patriots may be ready to address the issue with yesterday’s signing of wide receiver Tiquan Underwood, who has a background as a returner. Last season with the Jaguars, Underwood had 24 returns for 561 yards.
McCourty, a cornerback, is someone the Patriots can fall back on, but they don’t want him to regularly fill in at the spot, Belichick said.
“Devin is ready to go on that every week,’’ Belichick said. “He’s done it for us in the past. He’s one of our fastest and most explosive players.
“We feel like there’s the right situation for him in there, whether that’s doing it for a game or doing it for a play or whatever it happens to be. I’m sure he’ll be ready if he’s called upon.
“It will just depend on the game situation and what type of return game plan is [needed] for that particular game. I wouldn’t expect to see him as our regular kickoff returner, but he could be back there situationally.’’
The Patriots released tight end Dan Gronkowski and practice squad offensive lineman Thomas Welch.
One of the spots on the 53-man roster was secured by Underwood, who originally signed with the Patriots during training camp but was released Sept. 3 before the season opener. He was drafted by the Jaguars in 2009 out of Rutgers and went on to play two seasons in Jacksonville before he was released this year.
Gronkowski, the older brother of Rob Gronkowski, played in the first two games of the season before he was released Sept. 23. The Patriots re-signed him Oct. 11.
Wendell gets work
Offensive lineman Ryan Wendell took a few snaps at center against the Giants, and it may not be the last time he steps in at the position. Wendell, who is in his third season, missed the first two games with a calf injury but has played in every game since as a sub.
Dan Connolly has handled the center duties since the season opener when Dan Koppen left with a season-ending ankle injury. Belichick said Wendell’s reps are not a reflection on Connolly’s performance.
“We have confidence in both Ryan and Dan,’’ Belichick said. “Ryan unfortunately hasn’t had the opportunity to play a lot this year. He missed most of training camp. We feel like he’s a good enough player that would deserve an opportunity to play. He’s in there in some goal line situations and things like that.
“If we get the opportunity, and depending on how he performs with his opportunities, we may or may not do more than that. I’d say it’s more of a case of him as a player as opposed to any problems with Dan’s performance.’’
The Patriots will have one more afternoon start on the schedule this season. The NFL announced the Patriots-Colts game Dec. 4 at Gillette Stadium has been moved to a 1 p.m. start. The game originally was slated to start at 8, but with quarterback Peyton Manning out and the Colts 0-9, the matchup now is less desirable for prime time. The league will decide on a replacement night game by Nov. 22 . . . Linebacker Brandon Spikes has a sprained MCL in his knee, and Belichick said he is unsure how long the linebacker will be sidelined. “I think probably we need to give it just a little bit more time here,’’ Belichick said. “I saw him [Monday], he was in good spirits, feeling better. We’ll see how things go.’’
It may appear that a deep threat is lacking in the Patriots offense, but offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien disagrees.
“I think we have guys that can stretch the field,’’ he said. “We have guys that are good vertical receivers, some guys that do a little bit of both, intermediate receivers, short receivers - as far as short area, as far as the zones are concerned.
“I just think we just have to do a better job of coaching, playing, and a lot better in actually showing what we’re capable of doing.’’
O’Brien said last week that he had hoped to see Taylor Price more involved in the offense. But the second-year receiver missed the game against the Giants because of trouble with his hamstring.
“I really was disappointed for him, but you can’t control injuries,’’ said O’Brien. “He’s a good kid and he’s worked hard.
“I really would like to get a lot of people involved. We play a lot of guys and each game we go in with that thought process and obviously we take what the defense gives us. So, like in this past game, Wes [Welker] and Rob [Gronkowski] had a bunch of catches, but hopefully in the next game we can get some more guys involved.’’
Chad Ochocinco is in that group of players who are practicing well and could be more involved, O’Brien said.
“Chad’s definitely in that group and he’s done some good things and there are things we need to do a better job of, getting him the ball and things like that,’’ he said. “But that would go for everybody.’’