BOSTON (CBS) – Twice in recent weeks, in early morning and late afternoon, I’ve been asked on-air why the Patriots’ employ 250-pound LeGarrette Blount as their kick returner. If only I knew then what I know now.
On Wednesday, the same question was posed to New England head coach Bill Belichick.
“I think we’ve all seen his run skills,” Belichick replied. “He’s got speed, he’s got good vision and he’s a big, strong guy that’s hard to tackle. He’s good with the ball in his hands. On kickoff returns, he’ll get it.”
Some of us should have gotten it before Sunday’s performance in Atlanta. Like when Blount’s reversal of direction in a preseason game at Philadelphia led to a dazzling 51-yard touchdown run.
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Against the Falcons, the skills, speed and vision of which Belichick speaks were obviously evident. Most notably, as Blount beat defensive backs to the pylon for a 47-yard scoring dash. With it, he owns two of New England’s three longest runs from scrimmage. Overall, in fact, Blount has three carries for 16 yards or more.
My broadcaster partner Scott Zolak enthusiastically suggests feeding Blount the ball. Now we know why the Pats feel the same way, even on kickoffs.
RETURN TO SENDER
Preparing for Sunday’s visit to Cincinnati, the Patriots are well aware of the Bengals’ dangerous return men, Brandon Tate and Adam “Pacman” Jones. Both have ripped off highlight runbacks in games involving New England.
Jones is the last opponent to return a punt for a touchdown against the Patriots. He did it, covering 81 yards as a Tennessee Titan, on Dec. 31, 2006.
Lately, though, injuries in the Bengals secondary caused Jones to concentrate more on his role as defensive back while being held out of punt returns.
As a result, Tate has been deployed on both kickoffs and punts. In the last encounter of New England and Cincinnati on Sept. 12, 2010, Tate returned the second-half kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
He did it as a member of the Patriots, giving them a 31-3 lead in a 38-24 win.
A week after his first two touchdown receptions against Tampa Bay, rookie Kenbrell Thompkins enjoyed his first 100-yard receiving performance in Atlanta.
In all, he caught six passes from Tom Brady for 127 yards. They included a 49-yard grab to set up a field goal; a 38-yard catch on 3rd-and-19 to prolong a TD drive; and an 18-yard diving play in the end zone.
“He’s done great since he got here; that’s why he’s been out there so much, why he’s had so many opportunities because he continues to do those things,” Brady said of Thompkins on Wednesday. “That gains trust, certainly (from) me but also Coach [Bill] Belichick, [Offensive Coordinator] Josh [McDaniels], the other players on the team.
Tale of the Tape: Patriots vs. Bengals
“When the ball is going to a particular guy and good things are happening, you just want to keep giving him the ball. You have to find different ways to get it, but whenever you’re coming down with those balls, that’s a great thing.”
Their trust factor has gone so far that Brady kept giving Thompkins the ball Sunday even when bad things happened. For instance, his aforementioned touchdown vs. the Falcons occurred two snaps after Thompkins dropped a throw over the middle.
“The mental toughness that you show in those situations to put those past plays behind you is so important for all of us,” Brady explained. “You’re going to make some poor plays out there. You have to be able to put those behind you and move forward.
“(Kenbrell) did that the other night. He’s done a great job of that, putting those plays behind him and saying, ‘Alright, what’s next?’ Even when we win the game, he’s like, ‘That was good, but let’s keep getting after it.’ That’s what I really appreciate about him; his willingness to get better and make the improvements, and like all of us, come to work every day and see what he can do to help the team win.”
One observer impressed with what he’s seen of Thompkins in a Patriots’ uniform is Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. In fact, as he disclosed to New England media on Wednesday, Lewis liked Thompkins the first time he saw him coming out of the University of Cincinnati.
“He came up and introduced himself to me at the (NFL) combine over in [Indianapolis],” Lewis recalled. “I was over at UC a couple times for workouts. We had him here for our local day, so we had quite a bit of interaction with him.”
Ultimately, of course, Thompkins signed with New England.
“That’s not what I do, so I can’t tell you that,” said Lewis of his own interest in acquiring Thompkins. “You know what I’m saying? I’m sure we had interest. We felt he was a really good prospect. Our receivers coach (James Urban) felt really good about him.”
As does Brady.
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.
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