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The Big Nickel: The Bills are aware of Dan Connolly’s kick return skills, Vince Wilfork likes the locker room and Stevie Johnson finds redemption

12.22.10 at 2:55 pm ET

FOXBORO ‘€” Here are the five most important things you need to know about the Patriots on Wednesday:

1. Kicking away from Dan Connolly. The big offensive lineman was nowhere to be seen on Wednesday, but was a big topic of conversation nonetheless. He was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his 71-yard kick return in the second quarter of the win over the Packers ‘€” the longest kick return by an offensive lineman in NFL history, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

‘€œI got asked [about him] here too ‘€” were going to kick away from him,’€ said Buffalo coach Chan Gailey with a laugh. ‘€œI think that’€™s a good story. I don’€™t know when’€™s the last time that happened, probably not ever. We probably won’€™t kick it to him. I hope we don’€™t kick it to him, to be honest with you.’€

Connolly, who suffered a concussion later in the game and was not available to the media on Sunday or Wednesday, wasn’€™t around to comment, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick smiled when he was asked about the possibility of the Bills deliberately kicking away from Connolly on Sunday.

‘€œYeah, I bet Chan’€™s really worried about that,’€ Belichick said with a smile before turning serious.

‘€œIt was an excellent run on his part,’€ Belichick said of Connolly’€™s effort. ‘€œIt was timely, and he did a good job with the opportunity. One thing about Dan is, we worked on that play a lot in practice. We squib kick every week, and I’€™d say he probably handles the ball if not every week, I’€™d say at least every other week. Sometimes they go to Alge [Crumpler]. Sometimes they go to Rob. But we work on that on a regular basis.

‘€œDan’€™s always well prepared. He has been throughout his career. He was on the practice squad, released by a couple of teams, but kept working, kept getting better, has developed a role for himself and has been a very productive player for us this year,’€ added Belichick. ‘€œEven though he’€™s played a lot on offense, he still took a lot of pride in the kickoff return. We’€™ve had a lot of production on the kickoff return unit with him being a part of it as the middle guy there in the wedge. His opportunity came up to handle the ball, and he did a nice job with it. He found some open space and picked up a couple blocks and turned it into a big play. [It was a case of] preparation meets opportunity, and he delivered.’€

2. Connolly, Tom Brady, Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez were among those who weren’€™t on the field at the start of practice on Wednesday afternoon, held on the lower fields behind Gillette Stadium in sweats and shells. In addition, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and defensive linemen Brandon Deadrick, Myron Pryor and Mike Wright were also not present, while Ron Brace returned to practice for the first time since suffering a mild concussion two weeks ago against the Bears.

The only no-show that was something of a surprise was the absence of Banta-Cain, who has been a fairly regular presence the last few weeks and has not been listed on any recent injury reports. More should be revealed when the injury report is released at 4 p.m.

3. Shortly after he signed his new deal in the offseason, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork delivered a memorable monologue on the state of leadership and the culture of the locker room in Foxboro. On Wednesday, he talked about how far things have come in 12 months.

‘€œI think the locker room is great. I think the guys we have here are here for one reason: to win,’€ Wilfork said. ‘€œThey love football and obviously all year we’€™ve been through tough games and better games, weather games, you name it. And I think everybody has done a great job of coming together and playing as a team. That’€™s been the story for us all year. I think guys have really got it. The focus level is where it needs to be and the commitment level is where it needs to be.

‘€œWe can win a lot of ball games around here if that continues to get better. That’€™s where we’€™re at right now with leadership and I think it’€™s not just a couple guys. You can’€™t say it’€™s just the captains. Everybody in that locker room plays a role; we all play a role. Just because you see some of us more on TV or in the media or in the paper, that doesn’€™t mean we don’€™t have more leaders. I think from the coaches down, it starts everywhere and that’€™s how we’€™ve been playing. That’€™s been a non-issue for us this year.’€

4. On Wednesday, the Patriots cut loose defensive lineman Louis Leonard and added another defensive lineman Landon Cohen. The move was made to try and beef up the depth along the line, which has suffered several injuries over the last few weeks.

‘€œWe just felt like, he had a skill set, that, given our situation at this point and time, he might be able to contribute,’€ Belichick said. ‘€œWe haven’€™t worked with him before, so we’€™ll see how it goes. We met with him for a couple of days here ‘€” yesterday, this morning ‘€” to try and get him some information, try and get him caught up and see how it goes in practice. Whether or not he can be ready, I’€™m not sure.’€

‘€œIt’€™s not even 24 hours yet,’€ said Cohen when he was asked about how the transition is going. ‘€œI’€™m still transitioning right now. I’€™ll be able to tell you more later on in the week about how things are going.’€

The defensive lineman was a seventh-round selection of the Detroit Lions out of Ohio University in 2008 and has played for Lions and Jaguars. After being drafted by the Lions, Cohen spent his rookie season as a backup defensive tackle. He was elevated to a starting position in 2009, but was released on the day of final cuts in 2010 and subsequently signed by the Jaguars. He spent two games with Jacksonville before being released. Cohen has since worked out for a number of teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles.
He was a college teammate of rookies Thad Turner and Taylor Price, and knew a few things about the Patriots before he got the call earlier this week.

‘€œI kind of knew that they run a tight ship around here,’€ said Cohen. ‘€œI know it’€™s all business. There have been a lot of wins going on in here, and I want to make sure I’€™m doing the right thing and trying to keep up with that tradition.

With the state of depth along the defensive line, the 24-year-old will almost certainly get a shot to contribute sooner rather than later. He looks forward to the opportunity to play alongside veterans like Wilfork and Gerard Warren.

‘€œPlaying with those guys, it’€™s a dream come true for me,’€ he said. ‘€œI’€™m excited. I’€™m excited to be a part of this.’€

5. In a game last month against the Steelers, Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson dropped what would have been a game-winning touchdown pass. (Buffalo would go on to lose the game in overtime, 19-16.) After the game, Johnson Tweeted: ‘€œI PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO . . .’€

Johnson’€™s Tweet drew more attention that the drop ‘€” he made the monologues of Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel the following night, and was at the center of a pop culture storm for the next few days.

‘€œIt was not easy on him,’€ Gailey said. ‘€œIf you care, it hurts, and it hurt him badly to drop a pass like that. But it’€™s part of the game. Like the pitcher that gives us the home run ball in the bottom of the ninth. Nobody wants to go through that, but you walk back up on the mound the next time and here we go. And that’€™s what he had to do. He had to get back out there and go play.

‘€œHe’€™s a very, very  good receiver, and is going to be for, I think, quite a few years. He’€™s got to handle the highs and the lows. You have to handle both of them real well.’€

In the three games since, Johnson has 13 catches for 147 yards and a touchdown. He said he took what happened to him as a learning experience.

‘€œI’€™ve learned a lot,’€ he said when asked Wednesday about the experience. ‘€œI’€™ve learned to take things in stride and be able to move on, not only from that game but from previous games in the past as a team. You can’€™t really dwell on that week. What happened happened, and you have to move on to the next week, because they’€™ll be another team coming in here trying to take your spot and you have to be prepared and focused for that. That’€™s pretty much one of the main things I’€™ve learned ‘€” what happened that Sunday is not going to happen in the next Sunday. You have to be able to forget that.’€

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Bill Belichick, Brandon Deadrick, Chan Gailey



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