FOXBOROUGH - Coach Bill Belichick yesterday provided a long list of areas the Patriots planned to work on with the team not playing this weekend. One item was noticeably absent: kickoff returns.
Although it's a small sample size, just three games, the Patriots lead the NFL in that category with a 30.9-yard average.
Primary returner Ellis Hobbs gets most of the credit, and rightfully so. He's been dynamic and fearless on 10 returns, averaging 36 yards per runback. His long is 81 yards, coming in last Sunday's 38-13 loss to the Dolphins.
But even Hobbs acknowledges the production wouldn't be possible if not for the other 10 players on the kickoff return unit.
So, who are those guys?
The return unit essentially breaks down into three layers - the front-line guys, the wedge players, and the returners.
Last Sunday, the front line consisted of receivers Sam Aiken and Ray Ventrone; tight end David Thomas; linebackers Larry Izzo and Gary Guyton; and running back Heath Evans.
The wedge players were defensive linemen Mike Wright and Le Kevin Smith, and offensive lineman Mark LeVoir.
Hobbs was the primary returner and rookie Matthew Slater was the "off" returner, lined up across from Hobbs.
When assessing the Patriots' work on kickoff returns, Belichick cited the teamwork.
"I think Ellis has run the ball well and broken some tackles, but he's also had some room to run; that's a function of the timing of the front line, the wedge, the returner, and the off returner," he said. "It's unusual that a kickoff return is clean, opens up, and parts like the Red Sea. There are usually a lot of things that have to be adjusted along the way, particularly for the wedge, the off returner, and the [returner].
"It really comes down to the wedge making good decisions as to who is the most dangerous guy to block, blocking him, and the returner seeing those blocks and hitting the best opening. The decision-making between the wedge and the returner gives you a chance to have a positive return. Then, if you break a tackle or if you block it well, you have a chance for some big yardage."
One of the notable aspects of the Patriots' wedge group is that LeVoir, who was claimed off waivers from the Rams the week leading up to the season opener, had never performed those duties before.
He's been a quick study under special teams coach Brad Seely.
"Coach has done a great job teaching me the techniques and also the guys who have done it before me, they've been in there and helped me out a lot," said the 6-foot-7-inch, 306-pound LeVoir, who played under former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis at Notre Dame in 2006. "You just try to get a feel for it with reps in practice, and with that comes some more confidence."
LeVoir compares playing in the wedge to executing a zone-blocking scheme on the offensive line, so "if one guy goes, you go to the next guy."
While LeVoir has become a big part of the wedge group, Izzo, the special teams captain, is one of the leaders of the front-line crew. Front-liners usually line up at the 45-yard line, sprint back 25-30 yards, then locate the coverage player they should block. Izzo explained that front-line players will drop deeper if they are facing a faster coverage player.
Some players on the return team believe those front-line players are most important.
"They really set it all up," said Wright, who is part of the wedge. "There is a lot of stuff going on up there that you don't see much. It makes it easier for us in the back to find who we got and to get the blocks. It's pretty simple when the guys up front do their jobs."
When it all comes together, and there are no penalties, the cohesion among front-line players, wedge players, and return men can lead to big results.
"It can be a huge play, giving good field position for the offense," Wright said. "You just try to go out there and get a hit on somebody to open up a hole for Ellis. That's the way you want to start a drive. I don't play offense, but I imagine starting on the 50 is better than the 30."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.