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Mesko more than a footnote

First-half punts bailed out offense

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / December 26, 2011
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Let’s be honest: The Patriots don’t really want to see Zoltan Mesko on the field. When the punter comes out, it means the offense hasn’t done its job.

But in Saturday’s game against Miami, Mesko was the bright spot of the first half for New England. With the offense struggling mightily to move the ball, Mesko punted six times - he hadn’t punted more than five times in a game this season - and his kicks played a role in keeping the game from getting completely out of hand.

On their first six possessions, the Patriots never advanced into Miami territory. But thanks to Mesko, the Dolphins started drives at their 16, 37 (after a 13-yard return), 18, 11, 13, and 28.

Miami was able to build a 17-0 lead by halftime, but the Patriots overcame it for a 27-24 win.

Mesko’s third punt traveled 64 yards, tying his career best. He averaged a season-best 52.3 yards for the day, and he was done by halftime. After their first-half issues, the Patriots offense rebounded and Mesko wasn’t needed again.

Mesko called the 64-yarder a “fluke,’’ and said he had no early indications that he’d have a strong day.

“Actually, pregame wasn’t all that awesome; I felt like the ball was stiff,’’ said Mesko, pointing to a factor likely attributable to the cold. “But once you get the endorphins going, it was a little easier. But I’m just doing my job when I’m called on. I try to do the best job I can.

“I had great coverage downfield. They singled our guys, so it’s nice to have [Matthew] Slater and Sergio [Brown] and Ross Ventrone - they work so hard on that particular aspect of the game. And the protection was great. I don’t think they rushed us because I didn’t feel a thing.’’

For the season, the second-year punter is averaging 46.4 yards on 55 kicks; 23 punts have been inside the 20-yard line, and opponents have totaled just 215 return yards - less than 4 per kick. The coverage unit deserves some of the credit, but Mesko’s hang time plays a big role.

Mesko has earned some kudos from Bill Belichick this season and the respect of teammates for fighting through a knee injury suffered in Week 2 against San Diego when James Ihedigbo was blocked into him. Mesko wore a knee brace for a couple of weeks but didn’t miss a game.

Ellis contributes

After averaging 38 snaps for the first six games of the season, defensive lineman Shaun Ellis saw a drastic dropoff in the six games he played leading up to Saturday.

Some of that was due to injury - the veteran has been listed with knee and rib problems this year - but his performance wasn’t always up to par, either.

But last week, the Patriots had to place their top pass rusher, Andre Carter, on season-ending injured reserve, and Ellis was one of the players who stepped up to fill Carter’s role.

“I’m fortunate for another opportunity,’’ Ellis said. “I hate that it had to come that way, with Andre. But I’m playing for him and my teammates, so I just wanted to go out there and do what I could do and contribute.’’

Ellis was credited with three tackles (one solo), sacking Matt Moore on the third play of the game, one of two quarterback hits he had on the day. He played about half of the defensive snaps.

He has had to wait for another chance to prove his value, but he said he knew that chance would come.

“It wasn’t challenging,’’ he said. “I just told myself, ‘Just be patient.’ If an opportunity will come, it will come. I can only control what I can once I get in there.

“I was able to play a lot more and I was able to move around a lot better.’’

Holiday break

Belichick gave his players yesterday and today off. However, the coaching staff will be back at Gillette Stadium today . . . After Saturday’s win, Belichick presented the game ball to team owner Robert Kraft in honor of Kraft’s late wife. The Patriots have dedicated the season to Myra Kraft, who died in July after a long battle with cancer . . . Tom Brady threw for 304 yards Saturday, his 10th 300-yard game of the season. Brady has a career-high 4,897 passing yards, surpassing the 4,806 he totaled in 2007. He can break Dan Marino’s season record of 5,084 if he passes for 188 yards in the regular-season finale.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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