Some assorted notes and nuggets from Wednesday’s New England Patriots media availability:
— The Patriots practiced Wednesday.
Normally, that fact alone would not be newsworthy. But these past two weeks have been anything but normal for Bill Belichick’s troops.
During an unprecedented two-week stretch that saw a total of eight New England players land on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the Patriots were limited to just two total practices: a heavily restricted Saturday session before their game against the Denver Broncos was rescheduled and a regular practice last Thursday.
The Patriots were able to play their game against the Broncos on Sunday, but they were short-staffed on both lines and looked out of sync offensively in an 18-12 loss.
New England’s coronavirus crisis isn’t over — O-lineman James Ferentz and running back Sony Michel remain on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and the threat of additional positive tests is ever-present — but players appreciated the return to normalcy that Wednesday provided.
“We did the best we could do with whatever situation that was upon us,” veteran safety and co-captain Devin McCourty said in a video conference. “But as Kevin Faulk taught me, as athletes and as professional athletes in football, the best thing we do is get our routine and we get to stick to our routine and just become creatures of nature. Whatever we do, we just keep doing it over and over again.
“So I?m not going to lie, it was great to have some type of normal Wednesday today. It will help us as a team, and it was just great individually. It?s my 11th year, so I?ve only known Wednesday to be a Wednesday. So it was good to be back on our schedule today.”
This practice — the Patriots’ first on a Wednesday since Sept. 30 — also featured the returns of several key players. Center David Andrews, rookie linebacker Josh Uche and defensive tackle Beau Allen all practiced for the first time since landing on injured reserve, and three players (guard Shaq Mason, defensive tackle Byron Cowart and outside linebacker Derek Rivers) were removed from the COVID list.
Andrews, Uche and Allen still need to be added to the 53-man roster, but all six could be active for Sunday’s matchup against the San Francisco 49ers at Gillette Stadium.
“I think it brought a lot of excitement to the team and also a sense of urgency of how much we need to get done at practice coming off a loss, coming off back-to-back losses and also going against a really good football team, going against the defending champs in the NFC,” McCourty said. “So I think there was a sense of excitement and a sense of urgency and wanting to be out there and wanting and needing to get better. I think it was a really good vibe out there at practice.”
— With Andrews, Mason and Ferentz all unavailable, second-year guard/center Hjalte Froholdt played the first offensive snaps of his NFL career against Denver, entering at right guard after right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor left the game with an ankle injury.
The Patriots’ O-line as a whole endured its worst performance of the season, but Froholdt held his own, allowing zero pressures in 31 pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
?On the offensive line, you never know what’s going to happen,” Froholdt said Wednesday. “Every position in football is always that next man up. I always made sure that I stayed ready. Whenever my turn (came) or it was my time to go, I made sure that I knew the whole playbook and I prepared like I was the starter.
“It was good to go in there and play some football, but it would be nice to get the whole offensive line back. The whole idea is next man up and that is football for you.”
The Patriots drafted Froholdt in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He missed his entire rookie year with an injury, then played only on special teams in his first four appearances this season.
“It was awesome to get in, but it?s been a process for a long time,” the Arkansas product said. “I have been here for a little over a year now, so I was just excited to get in. It?s always moving forward. You can?t look too much at what just happened. We have San Fran coming up, so that’s the focus now.”
— The Patriots will face arguably the NFL’s best tight end this week in Niners star George Kittle.
McCourty shared some interesting insight into how Kittle compares to ex-Patriot Rob Gronkowski, the previous owner of that distinction.
Both players have similar strengths, the safety explained, but the way San Francisco utilizes Kittle is very different from how New England would use Gronkowski.
“I mean, I think they’re both two great players, but the offenses are a little different,” McCourty said. “Kittle does a lot of motioning, a lot of different things in their offense. I mean, he does end-arounds in their offense.
“But I will say he’s a guy who, where they’re similar is blocking. They’ll both get after you. And I think one of the biggest things is when you watch Kittle, if he misses a block or he doesn’t sustain it the way he wants, you can see he gets mad about that. Like, he wants to be out there blocking.
“And I will say the other similarity is tackling. Trying to tackle both those guys, watching Gronk over the years of guys trying to tackle him and he’s using his off hand to not just stiff-arm but throw guys off him. You see that with Kittle, too. And I would say they’re both obviously really good. They catch the ball at a high level.
“But I would say how they’re using their game is a little different. A lot of times you watch the Gronk, it was a lot of down the seams, vertical routes. Kittle does a lot of quick slants, things like that over the middle. He’ll run some diagonal routes, catch-and-run plays. But I would say both of them, the hardest thing about covering them at the tight end position is they can do everything. They’ll block so you can run behind them, but then they’ll also play-action and get them in certain spots in a defense that hurt you, and they both can run routes at a high level.”
Kittle has 30 catches on 38 targets for 380 yards and two touchdowns in four games this season. Belichick earlier this week said he’s “as good as anybody that I?ve coached or as good as anybody that we?ve played against.”