PITTSBURGH -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and the NFL:
1. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski is the last person to make excuses for a slower-than-usual start to the season (has missed field goals of 39, 48 and 50 yards and an extra point), as he has publicly stated multiple times that his performance isn’t up to his standard. But quietly behind the scenes, some within the Patriots' organization are hoping changes made to the Gillette Stadium playing field in recent days could help the 11-year veteran find his groove more consistently. Several players have commented in recent weeks that the field has been particularly soft, and thus it was notable to them that work was done to harden it. This isn’t quite like 2006 when the Patriots lost to Eric Mangini’s Jets in a rain-soaked game as players had trouble with footing, which was followed by the club ripping up the natural-grass field and having a synthetic field installed in the middle of the season. But it also seemed to be more than routine maintenance. Three of Gostkowski’s four misses have come at home, but perhaps more than that, it’s also the surface on which he practices daily.
2. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is one touchdown shy of tying receiver Stanley Morgan’s Patriots record of 68. Gronkowski laughed when I mentioned it to him last week, first saying, “Thanks for the jinx,” and then relaying that he had no idea he was approaching the record until another reporter mentioned it to him earlier in the week. With that, Gronkowski played the role of professor. “I’m going to have to give your question a C,” he cracked. “You all [in the media] give us grades for how we play, so I think I’ll have to give you grades for your questions. That one has already been asked, so it’s a ‘C!’” This, of course, was all delivered with a smile in his trademark playful fashion.
3. The Pittsburgh Steelers' official website took down a video interview with defensive coordinator Keith Butler last week in which Butler said the Patriots “do things outside the box sometimes that might be on the edge of being legal or not legal.” The video wasn’t taken down until after some mainstream outlets posted Butler’s comments, as the Steelers’ actions seemed to be a case of them trying to extinguish a potential storyline before it became something bigger or perhaps eliminating the possibility of providing motivational fuel to the Patriots ahead of their Week 7 visit to Heinz Field. Not a bad idea, but as one would expect, the remarks had already been received at the coaching offices at 1 Patriot Place, and if the Patriots win Sunday, I’ll be interested to see if Bill Belichick addresses them in any way.
4. Read this story from ESPN’s Darren Rovell from June 29, 2015, about multiple NFL hires aimed at bolstering how the league handles off-the-field incidents, and then consider what has unfolded over the past week with New York Giants kicker Josh Brown and his domestic-abuse history. It’s a stunning failure by the NFL which makes one wonder if those hires were just window dressing.
5. Patriots receiver Danny Amendola, now in his eighth NFL season, said he was looking forward to playing in his first game at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field on Sunday. Including preseasons with Dallas in 2008 and Philadelphia in 2009, he will have played in every NFL stadium after Sunday except for those in Minnesota (opened in 2016) and San Francisco (opened in 2014). Assuming good health, Amendola will cross San Francisco off the list Nov. 20.
6. Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson’s remarks about how it’s going to take time to build a stronger defense when the team is paying such a big salary to quarterback Andrew Luck seemed to amuse Patriots president Jonathan Kraft. During his weekly pregame interview on WBZ-FM 98.5 The Sports Hub last week, Kraft was asked about the Patriots committing more resources to the tight end position than any other team and if that approach was sustainable in the future. Kraft responded: “You’re asking me a Ryan Grigson question there.” No love lost there, naturally, in the wake of Deflategate.
7. Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount kept a noticeably low profile during the past week, politely declining all interview requests in the aftermath of getting stomped on by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict (fined $75,000 for the incident) and in advance of returning to Pittsburgh, where he played 11 games for the Steelers in 2014. His tenure with the Steelers was cut short when he was released after leaving the field before a game concluded. With that as background, it’s no wonder Blount didn’t want to be a big storyline.
8. Patriots second-year guard Tre' Jackson, who started nine games in 2015 but has opened 2016 on the physically-unable-to-perform list (knee), looks noticeably thinner this season. Listed on the roster at 320 pounds, he said he’s down to 315. For a player who entered the league with some knee issues coming out of Florida State, improved physical conditioning could help prolong his career.
9. Third-year linebacker Trevor Reilly's signing to the Patriots’ practice squad Thursday hardly registered a ripple on the transaction meter, but the way it unfolded is a good reminder of the dedication players like Reilly show in hopes of landing a job. Reilly, who played in 29 games for the Jets from 2014-2015 but was released in early September with an injury settlement (hamstring), had just landed in Phoenix on a connecting flight home after a Tuesday workout with the Colts when his agent called to tell him the Patriots wanted to work him out. Reilly figured, “Why go home?” and quickly hopped on a red-eye flight from Phoenix to Boston that night. He felt like he had a strong workout Wednesday and then signed. The next challenge for Reilly: sticking around.
10. Safety Nate Ebner generated quite a bit of publicity in the offseason as he played for the U.S. Olympic rugby team, but he has flown mostly under the radar through the Patriots’ 5-1 start despite leading the club with nine special-teams tackles. That is remarkable production, as he is just two tackles shy of his total from all of last season. The next closest player is Barkevious Mingo, with four tackles.