Patriots

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

Patriots-Falcons practice report: Gilmore (concussion/ankle) still out with Falcons, Jones on deck

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Patriots-Falcons practice report: Gilmore (concussion/ankle) still out with Falcons, Jones on deck

FOXBORO -- The Patriots are looking thin in the secondary as they head into their third and final day of practice before Sunday's matchup with the Falcons. 

Both Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle) and Eric Rowe (groin) sat out the session, as did linebacker Elandon Roberts (ankle). Undrafted rookie defensive end Harvey Langi was also a non-participant as he recovers from injuries sustained in a car crash last week. 

Asked if Friday's practice was a possibility, Gilmore said, "We'll see." He did not give any indications that his symptoms had improved or that he had been cleared for practice as he works through the league's concussion protocol. 

Rowe was spotted in the locker room on Thursday, but he has not practiced since aggravating his groin injury in Week 4. He was injured initially during a Week 2 win over the Saints. 

Roberts suffered an ankle injury when teammate Alan Branch landed on his lower leg during a loss to the Panthers in Week 4. However, he was healthy enough to play in Weeks 5 and 6. It's unclear as to whether or not his current ailment is related to what knocked him from that Week 4 loss to Carolina. 

Here is Thursday's practice participation/injury report for Sunday's game between the Patriots and Falcons:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle)
LB Harvey Langi (back)
LB Elandon Roberts (ankle)
CB Eric Rowe (groin)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
RB Rex Burkhead (ribs)
WR Chris Hogan (ribs)
G Shaq Mason (shoulder)

ATLANTA FALCONS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
LB Jordan Tripp

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
OLB Vic Beasley Jr. (hamstring)
K Matt Bryant (back)
LB Jermaine Grace (hamstring)
LB Deion Jones (quadricep)
DE Takk McKinley (shoulder)
LB Duke Riley (knee)
WR Mohamed Sanu (hamstring)
DL Courtney Upshaw (ankle/knee)

Patriots' team personality changed by offseason moves, and not for better

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Patriots' team personality changed by offseason moves, and not for better

Bill Belichick has long been a proponent of altering his team's DNA from season to season. It cuts down on complacency, and also allows the head coach to be correct when he says last year doesn't matter to this year's Patriots. It can't, after all. What can players like Stephon Gilmore, Brandin Cooks or Lawrence Guy, who were on other rosters in other cities and -- in some cases -- other divisions or other conferences, know about last year's Pats? The answer is nothing, or next to nothing. Just the way Belichick prefers.

But last offseason's turnover may have done more harm than good, at least to this point in the year. Yes, the Pats have shown a toughness and an ability to overcome adversity -- see the start versus the Jets and the comeback against the Texans -- but there are clear indicators this group isn't gelling like Belichick believed it would. 

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Much of that points to the unusual approach taken by the coach and the front office in free agency. Whether it was the quick-strike signing of Gilmore to an expensive contract, to the surrendering of another first-rounder -- this time by choice -- in the trade for Cooks, or even the decision to walk away from fan favorite LeGarrette Blount in favor of younger, less proven backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, much of what Belichick was trying to do has yet to bear the necesssary fruit. And it's not just on the field where the Pats have shown deficiencies; it's in the locker room and meeting rooms as well.

Start with the bold move to get an in-his-prime Gilmore. Signing a player considered in some circles to be a No. 1 corner makes all the sense in the world. But what perplexed many was the decision to pay an outsider over Malcolm Butler, a proven player not only in this system, but in the biggest of games. Gilmore doesn't have that pedigree because his former team, the Bills, never made the playoffs, let alone a Super Bowl. 

Butler's anger at the decision and the way the rest of his offseason played out has been well-documented in this space. But what hasn't in many other spaces is the acknowledgement that it still wears on Butler to this day. 

His play is back on the uptick after a reduction of snaps in Week 2, but Butler has always been a player to whom the team has devoted extra attention to get ready week to week. That may have factored in the Pats' decision to only go so far in contract talks. Why then would Belichick assume Butler would be the perfect professional when Gilmore gets what Butler believes is his money? The thought seems to run counter with the argument against keeping Butler longterm in the first place. 

Butler says his relationship with Gilmore is good, that he's glad to have him as a teammate. Perhaps the 28-year-old has come to that now. Perhaps. 

As for Gilmore, he's soft-spoken. That has occasionally come off as though he's a player lacking confidence. His performance against Tampa Bay was a step in the right direction, but it was immediately followed by a day-before-the-game scratch against the Jets because of a concussion that was either suffered late in the week or was unreported until Saturday. His sudden absence put the Patriots in a bind. The fact that Gilmore spoke up was the right thing to do, but if it could have been communicated earlier it should have been, for the good of both player and team. Now he must reassert himself, whenever that opportunity comes.

"[You] grow together as team based on those experiences; some good, some bad, but learning from all of them," Belichick said when I asked him about a team's personality evolving over the course of the year. "I mean, we've only had one roster change since the start of the season but that's certainly on the low side. I would anticipate that there would be roster changes during the course of the year like there always are for every team and so that affects the makeup of the team, the interactions of the team. Maybe that's the personality you're talking about."

Belichick has a tendency to not only remember your last game, but -- if warranted -- hold it against you. Blount would be a prime example. He rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns last year but his play in the Super Bowl was poor. So despite his production on the field and his popularity off, the Pats had no inclination to offer LGB a raise. In fact, they were fine with him walking away, and that's exactly what he did. Gillislee and Burkhead were tabbed as replacement parts, and on paper it looked great. It still may end that way. But neither player has provided a) a level of play equivalent to Blount's and b) the energy that Blount brought. And that latter part of the equation is incredibly important. Just ask the Eagles, who get a jolt from Blount every time he lowers his shoulder and runs over a defender. 

The same could hold true for others who fled, were allowed to leave, or never got the chance to come back: 

-- Martellus Bennett could be a pain in the ass but there was never a dull moment around him, and no one can deny the loquacious tight end was an energy player both on and off the field. 

-- Logan Ryan had been through so much with the Pats, both good and bad. He had no problem talking, not just to his teammates but to the other side as well. He had earned his teammates' trust. 

-- Chris Long had an excellent relationship with so many guys on the team, and while he wouldn't be considered a "personality" in the same mold as Blount, he was incredibly well-respected for his professionalism and for his sacrifice, many times playing out of position. 

Then throw in the retirement of old standby Rob Ninkovich and, of course, the season-ending injury to Julian Edelman. If you didn't understand before, you should know now just how much each player is missed.

It's now up to the newcomers, and some of the holdovers, to elevate their level and find their voice, both on the field and in that room. And that may also be a part of the early issue. These "new" players -- Cooks, Gilmore, Gillislee, Burkhead, Guy -- are, for the moment, quiet. Perhaps they're concerned about stepping on toes, but at some point that may be needed.

"Look, everybody's a shareholder on the team," Belichick said. "It's not one person's team. It belongs to all of us and we try to make it as functional, as effective and as competitive as we possibly can. So, that's what the goal is, to win every game that we play and to have a good season and to make the most out of every day and every opportunity that we have. 

"I don't know if that answers the question or not, but I'm trying."

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