Patriots

How important is the punt-return role to Bill Belichick? 'It's a priority'

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How important is the punt-return role to Bill Belichick? 'It's a priority'

How much does Bill Belichick value having a trusted set of hands to return punts for the Patriots? He'll be the first to tell you, if you screw things up in that role, there aren't many ways to lose a game more quickly. 

After losing Julian Edelman and Cyrus Jones to season-ending knee injuries in back-to-back preseason games -- both of whom could have factored into the punt-return game significantly in 2017 -- what will the Patriots do to fill the role? 

MORE: Patriots' 53-man roster projection 5.0: The final cut

Belichick was asked during a conference call on Friday if a punt-return specialist, someone who might not contribute much offensively or defensively, was worthy of a roster spot now that the deadline for final cuts is around the corner. 

"I mean I'd say the ball-handling is critical," Belichick answered. "It's like the long-snapper. How many plays is a long-snapper in for a game? Call it 10? I don't know. Somewhere in that neighborhood. Eight to 10 extra-points, punts, field goals. But everybody carries a long-snapper.

"Between the kick-returns and the punt-returns, [it's] maybe a couple less than that. But I'd say the difficulty of those jobs and the importance of them and core ball-handling, there's not much of a way to lose a game quicker than that. I think it's a high priority for everybody. When I say everybody, I say every team . . . We'll have to see how it turns out, but it's not an afterthought at all. It's a priority."

The Patriots have a few in-house options to take over punt-return duties at the moment. Danny Amendola has plenty of experience in that regard. He's returned 147 punts in his career, including 58 over the last four years as a member of the Patriots. 

But with Amendola, whose health at the end of the season has been a priority for the Patriots in the past, perhaps the team would like to limit as much as possible the extra few hits he would take as a return man.

Another option could be undrafted rookie corner Will Likely, who was named the returner of the year in the Big Ten back in 2015. He fielded punts on Thursday night against the Giants once Jones left injured. 

Amendola seems like the best fit for now. And it's not only because of his experience with the physical aspects of the role -- fielding the ball cleanly, protecting it, picking up whatever's there in terms of field position. He's also up on how the Patriots want to handle the football in the countless number of situations that could pop up.

Amendola has also handled kick returns in the past (33 in the last three years), which could also help save the Patriots a roster spot for a punt-returner.

Belichick went deep on the differences between the duties of a punt-returner and a kick-returner in Friday's conference call. 

"Of course the easy answer is if one person does both, that makes it a lot easier, and it also makes the overall roster discussion a lot easier," Belichick began. "The big difference, of course, is on kickoff returns you have a chance to build up your speed. You get a chance to handle the ball cleanly, and there's nobody on top of you when you're catching it. You're able to run and set up your blocks and hit things full-speed . . . usually between the 20 and 30-yard line, where the coverage and the blockers and the wedge all sort of come together and the returners get a chance to set those blocks up and hit them and try to get through there.

"The punting game is a lot more situational. Mostly on kickoffs, the ball's always kicked from the same place. Rarely is there a difference; there are some, but they're minimal -- after a safety or that type of thing. But punting, the ball can be anywhere. The situation that they're punting in can be quite diverse and sometimes complex. Punters are very good at directional punting and kicking different types of punts -- end-over-end punts, spiral punts, spirals that don't turn over and so forth. The ball-handling is a little more complex.

"And you have to deal with players around you as you're catching the ball sooner or later. Sometimes a punter will out-kick his coverage, but the majority of the time there's some decision making involved on whether to catch it and how to make the first coverage player or two miss to get the return started, or fair-catch it, or to let it go and not catch the ball, or to let it go over your head and go into the end zone for a touchback. There's a lot of decision-making on whether to just catch the ball, or whether to catch it and run with it, or whether to catch it and just fair-catch it that are quite different than the kickoffs.

"And then in addition to that, you're dealing with defenders and coverage players that are on you a lot quicker on punt returns. Sometimes you only have a yard or two, or a couple yards, to get into space, make a guy miss, break a tackle, whereas kickoffs are much more of a build-up play. Because they're so different a lot of times you don't have the same player doing both.

"And on a personal opinion, because they're so different, I find the two plays very fascinating and intriguing and a great part of the strategy of football. Just because the plays themselves are so different in the teaching -- the rules, the skills and so forth. So that's why I'm not in favor of . . . I take an opposing view to the people that want to eliminate kickoffs from the game and try to have as few kickoffs as possible. I think it's an exciting play. It's a unique play and one that is a big momentum play because of what happened the play before -- the score or possibly the times at the start of the half where it's kind of a tone-setter or a pace-setter for that opening play.

"So yeah they're plenty different. And of course the same thing in the blocking. You have a chance to set up a return (on kickoffs), whereas on the punting side of it you have an option of trying to pressure the punter and block it or return it, but you kind of have to return it from the line of scrimmage. You can't drop off too far because the possibilities of fakes. So you have to keep enough guys up on the line of scrimmage to ensure that that ball's punted. And you have to ensure you're not getting an onside kick, too, but again, that's much less frequent and the rules are in the kick-return team's favor on the onsides kick. It's a big gamble for the kicking team to do that as a surprise tactic. So the blocking patterns and techniques of blocking are quite different on the punt returns compared to what they are in kickoff returns."

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.