FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ kick coverage units have been characteristically excellent this season. Their return teams? Not so much.
The Patriots enter Week 7 ranked 27th in the NFL in average yards per kick return and 18th in average punt return yards. Their kick and punt coverage teams, meanwhile, rank second and ninth, respectively.
Both return units did show improvement in Sunday’s 35-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, however. D.J. Foster picked up 30 yards on his lone kick return, and Julian Edelman averaged 16.3 yards per return on three Bengals punts. Edelman also returned one kick for 16 yards, with Cincinnati’s three other kickoffs going for touchbacks.
“We felt good about our production (Sunday),” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “I think we’re maybe one or two blocks away, but it was nice to leave the field with some good production. D.J. had a nice read on his kickoff return, and Julian made some nice plays back there. So, hopefully we can spring one here. We’ll keep working at it, though.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick also addressed his team’s improvement in the return game during his Monday morning conference call.
“Our coverage in both phases this year has been good,” Belichick said. “The return game’s been another story, but (Sunday) was the best we’ve had on that, so hopefully that’s heading in the right direction.”
Some additional notes from Monday:
— Slater drew a basketball comparison when describing how effective tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett have been when they’ve been on the field together.
“We have the personnel that gives us the confidence to do a lot of different things,” Slater said. “Obviously, with the two small forwards out there, it’s a tough matchup for anyone.”
That’s probably the only time you’ll ever hear the word “small” associated with the two 6-foot-6 behemoths.
— Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe put forth a strong performance Sunday, highlighted by his defense on Bengals star wide receiver A.J. Green in the second half. Belichick said he was encouraged by what the former Philadelphia Eagle showed in his first game as a Patriot.
“It was our first chance to see him in game action for us, too,” Belichick said. “But I thought he did some good things. Not perfect, some things to work on, but he did some good things. The play he made on Green on the flag pattern there in the end zone was a very good play. We’ll keep working. I’m sure he’ll keep working, and we’ll just see where it takes us, but certainly an encouraging start.”
— Rowe was in the lineup against the Bengals because cornerbacks Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones both were inactive. Neither has appeared on an injury report this season, meaning both were healthy scratches.
Asked whether Jones’ DNP was related to his ejection last weekend in Cleveland, Belichick gave a lengthy response that basically boiled down to: “We did what was best for the team.”
“Well, every week we can always talk about some players that weren’t active, because there are always going to be seven of them,” Belichick said. “In the end, each week we try to activate the players that we feel will give our team the best chance to win. That’s what we do. If there’s a health issue and a player is not able to play, then that is a decision.
“But after that, we activate the players for the game that we feel, based on the game plan and the preparations going into the game and what we know about it at that time, as well as the game plan depth and all the other factors that go into it, then that’s how we decide on the inactives.
“Every week, there are going to be some guys that are inactive, and if it’s not injury-related, then it’s related to how we feel we can best play the game and try to win it. That’s what we’re out there for — to try to win games.”
In other words: None of your business.
Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images