Patriots

Why Chris Hogan's return could mitigate impact of Rob Gronkowski suspension

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Why Chris Hogan's return could mitigate impact of Rob Gronkowski suspension

FOXBORO -- No one can give the Patriots what Rob Gronkowski gives them. That much is obvious. But if they could get Chris Hogan back in the lineup, that might lessen the impact of playing without their suspended tight end down in Miami on Monday night. 

Hogan participated in the team's fully-padded practice inside the Empower Field House on Wednesday. It was his first on-the-field session with his teammates since suffering a shoulder injury against the Chargers in Week 8.

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While it's unclear as to whether or not he'll be healthy enough to play against the Dolphins, he was clearly pleased that he was able to finally get back to work.

“It was like a first day of school for me, to get back out on the field," he said. "I was excited to be out there. The competitor in me wants to be out there no matter what. I’m just taking it day-by-day, trying to get better and hopefully put myself in a position where I can be back on the field with these guys."

In Hogan's absence, the Patriots have turned to Phillip Dorsett in three-receiver sets. Though Dorsett has chipped in with a handful of effective down-the-field blocks, he's played 168 snaps since the bye and has just three targets. Should Hogan be able to return, Tom Brady would suddenly have one of his more dependable options available to him again in the passing game. 

Hogan would also provide a sneaky-effective red-zone target with Gronkowski out. 

Even after missing the last four games, Hogan is top 20 in the NFL in terms of red-zone touchdowns. His four receiving scores inside the 20-yard line are tied for 18th in the league with Kansas City's Travis Kelce and one more than San Diego's Keenan Allen, New Orleans' Michael Thomas and Denver's Demaryius Thomas.

And even with a quarter of the season lost to injury, Hogan is still in the top 30 in terms of red-zone targets. The 11 passes he's seen in that area are more than Philadelphia's Alshon Jeffery (10), Oakland's Amari Cooper (9) and Denver's Emmanuel Sanders (8).

"Chris has got good length,” Bill Belichick said earlier this season when asked about Hogan's red-zone productivity. "He catches the ball well. He catches away from his body, which a lot of passes in the red area, that’s what you have to do because the coverage is tight. The quarterback throws it to where the defender can’t get it, and the receiver has to extend to make the play. Good hands, being able to separate and good height definitely helps down there."

Before getting hurt, the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder was on pace for career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns, and he was particularly busy in the one game Gronkowski missed this season due to a leg injury. In Week 5 against the Bucs, Hogan was targeted a season-high 11 times and caught a season-high 8 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. 

It's not certain Hogan will be able to play. But if he's a go, his presence in the lineup could go a long way in terms of helping to fill created by Gronkowski's suspension. 

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Brady knew it wasn't over, told Gronkowski to cool it on the celebration

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Brady knew it wasn't over, told Gronkowski to cool it on the celebration

Tom Brady had a feeling. He knew there was only less than a minute left in his team's game with the Steelers. But he also knew that was plenty of time for something crazy to go down. 

After completing a two-point conversion on a fade to Rob Gronkowski -- the piece de resistance of Gronkowski's monster day, most of which was spent being checked by second-year safety Sean Davis -- the big tight end celebrated and hammed it up for an on-the-field camera like he was in a late-90s rap video. 

Brady interrupted his teammate mid-dance. "Hey!" he shouted at Gronkowski. "It ain't over."

"Fifty-five seconds, that’s still a lot of time," Brady said after the game. "They hit the one big play, and before you know it they are knocking on our end zone’s door. [Roethlisberger] made a really great throw [to Jesse James], but they just couldn’t come up with it. Then the great tackle [by Malcolm Butler] on the [Darius Heyward-Bey] crossing route. They tried to fake spike it on third down, but our guys were aware and made a great play."

Brady's message to Gronkowski late was reminiscent of the end of Super Bowl LI, when it was at first somewhat unclear as to whether or not James White got into the end zone for the walk-off game-winner. At that point in time, Brady went from initially celebrating, to unsure White got in. He told his teammates to hold off on the partying until the play was reviewed -- kind of in the same way he told Gronkowski to chill out. 

We know how it worked out. And even if the stakes weren't quite as high, the finish in Pittsburgh was about as dramatic as it gets for a regular-season game. 

"That was great. It was a lot of fun," Brady said. "It was a great environment and a great team that we played that played really well. The weather conditions -- it kind of rained the whole game. It was just one of those days where you go back and forth, you play right to the end, and the ball bounces some weird ways. I’m glad it bounced our way today."

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Belichick highlights fourth-quarter kickoff as key in win over Steelers

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Belichick highlights fourth-quarter kickoff as key in win over Steelers

Leave it to Bill Belichick to shed light on the importance of the kicking game after a game like the one his team played on Sunday. 

Of all the memorable moments in New England's 27-24 win, the one Belichick brought up unprompted in his post-game press conference wasn't a Rob Gronkowski catch, or a Tom Brady throw, or a touchdown that was ruled to be an incompletion.

It was a kickoff. Specifically, the kickoff that occurred immediately before the final Steelers drive of the game. 

Belichick's point? That there were countless plays that mattered, involving an unspecified number of players. Team game.

"A lot of guys played well," Belichick said. "Tom played well. Rob played well, but we got a lot of great play from really everybody on the team. You can just go right down the line. Every play was a big play. 

"The kickoff after we scored was a big play. If that had been a touchback, I don’t know, they might have scored on that pass. It would have been maybe on the 1-yard line. Every play is a big play."

The pass Belichick referred to was the 69-yard catch-and-run that was completed to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 52 seconds left in the game. It moved the Steelers from the 21-yard line to the Patriots' 10 in less than 20 seconds. 

One play prior, Smith-Schuster returned a Stephen Gostkowski kick out of his own end zone for 22 yards before being tackled by Patriots special-teamer Nicholas Grigsby. It was Grigsby's second "teams" tackle of the game, and his third game under Belichick since being signed off of the Ravens practice squad last month.

The difference between Grigsby's tackle and a touchback in the box score was four yards so maybe Smith-Schuster's rumble down the sideline to the 10 wouldn't have resulted in a touchdown.

But you never know. And that's why, to Belichick, every play was big. Even in a game like that one, where hours of sports talk on television and radio will be devoted to a handful of moments that occurred in the last two minutes.

It's an approach that has helped shaped the style of the coach who watched his team win its ninth straight division title and 15th of the last 17. It all matters. 

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