Kicking around return ideas

Elsa/Getty Images

The Patriots have utilized Danny Woodhead at kick returner in recent weeks.At the midway point of the 2011 season, the Patriots rank 30th in the league in kickoff returns, averaging a mere 20.8 yards per return. Coach Bill Belichick wasn't bashful while admitting it's a trouble spot for the team.

"Our return game is not producing to the level that we would like it to be at," Belichick said Tuesday during conference calls. "It’s not reflective of any one individual -- that’s everybody. Like we talked about, we need to do a better job of coaching, we need to do a better job of blocking, we need to do a better job of running, setting up our blocks. We just need to do a better job all the way around. We’re not getting enough out of that. We’ve been productive there in the past. That should be a solid area of our game that we should be getting more out of than what we are so we all just have to work harder to bring that level up."

The Patriots have utilized five different returners this season, even shuffling top cornerback Devin McCourty into that role in a late-game spot during Sunday's loss to the Giants. But neither he, nor Matthew Slater, Julian Edelman, Danny Woodhead, or Stevan Ridley have generated much of a spark. New England's longest return of the season has been 37 yards (by Edelman).

By comparison, through eight games last season, Brandon Tate boasted a return average of 28.9 yards per return and had taken two back for touchdowns. Rule changes have certainly made things more challenging for returnmen, but it's worth noting that Tate still boasts a 25.1 yards per return average in 18 kickoff returns with the Bengals this season.

Could the Patriots utilize McCourty at returns more often moving forward?

"Devin is ready to go on that every week," said Belichick. "He’s done it for us in the past. He’s one of our fastest and most explosive players. It’s something that he’s always ready to do; he works on every week. We feel like there’s the right situation for him in there, whether that’s doing it for a game or doing it for a play or whatever it happens to be. I’m sure he’ll be ready if he’s called upon and he’s done a good job for us doing that in the past. It will just depend on the game situation and what type of return game plan is for that particular game. I wouldn’t expect to see him as our regular kickoff returner but could he be back there situationally? Sure."