The Patriots were able to get an important offensive option back in the fold Thursday night when Aaron Hernandez  returned to the lineup for the first time in a month. The tight end, who has been hobbled by injury since going down with an ankle issue in a Week 2 loss to the Cardinals, did come back for a couple of games last month, but appeared to suffer a setback and was shelved again until Thursday night.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hernandez played 57 of the Patriots’ 70 offensive snaps on Thursday, and finished the game with two catches for 36 yards.
‘It was certainly good to have Aaron back, and I was pleased with the amount of snaps he was able to play,’ said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels  on a conference call with reporters Friday. ‘I thought what was interesting was that for being off for such an extended period, I thought he hung in there and tried to fight through it and give us everything he could give us.
‘It’s great to have a guy like that back. It’s a guy who can do a lot of things with the ball. He made some key plays for us last night and hopefully we can build on that as we go down the stretch here with Aaron as he plays more and more each week. I thought that was good.’
With Rob Gronkowski  expected to be sidelined for the next month or so with a broken arm, all of the tight ends will see an uptick in playing time. That includes veteran Daniel Fells, who has been on and off the field over the course of the last month or so. Against the Jets, he also played 57 of the Patriots’ 70 offensive snaps. And while he didn’t show up all that much in the box score (one catch on two targets for 24 yards), McDaniels also lauded Fells’ performance.
‘Daniel definitely did a nice job of his role in the game plan,’ McDaniels said. ‘We asked a lot of different things of Daniel last night. Asked him to do some different things in the running game. Asked him to pass protect at times and made a big catch there for a big chunk gain there in the third quarter, I believe.
‘We have a lot of tight ends that are capable of doing different things. The way we played them last night, we had two of them on the field, predominantly, most of the game. I thought those guys gave us some protection and allowed us to play the game we wanted to play.’
Here are a few other highlights from McDaniels Q&A with the media on Friday:
This is your second time working with Tom Brady  and Brandon Lloyd . As we approach Week 12 of this season, do you have a better feel for the strengths of those two players and how all the pieces fit together?
‘I think that, obviously, the more time we spend together and the more you get to learn about different phases of each player’s game and how they all work together collectively and in terms of the performance that we’re looking for from them, I think is all packed together. Really, what we try to do now is try to hone in on some of those things that either we feel like are strengths of those groups of players that are working together, whether that’s throwing the ball between Tom and Brandon or a certain blocking combination on the edge with the tight ends or whatever it may be. We’re trying to maximize the strengths of their games and work on the weak points that we’re maybe not doing as well, but we need to improve on moving forward. I think with Brandon and Tom specifically, I think there’s definitely some real good and we’re always going to try to find a way to make some things that we didn’t hit positive as we go forward. And I know that those two guys have worked extremely hard to try to get that done and hopefully we’re going to see more and more results as we go down the stretch here.’
At this point in the season are you still adding things to the playbook or is it more of a fine-tuning effort at this point?
‘I think that the core of our offense is always going to be kind of what we came out of training camp with. The core of the offense has to maintain itself as you go through the season, but I always think there’s room for improvement and you need to take and add to it as you go based on the defense that you’re seeing that week. And it may not be a brand new protection; but maybe a it’s a route combination we’ve never used off of a formation we’ve used previously. Those are the little things that we try to make sure we’re sensitive to and you’ve heard the term and the phrase ‘self-scouting’. A lot of that has to do with looking at yourself and see what other teams are seeing and try to go forward and either protect things that you’re doing well or give them something new to think about as you go forward. I don’t think that ever stops. I don’t think there’s ever a period of time where you just come to a point in the season where you start doing that. I always think you can make yourself better by complementing some of the things you do well and hopefully that’s what we’ll continue to do here the last five weeks of the season.’
This team has shown an ability to force turnovers on defense and convert turnovers into points on offense. Why do you think it is important to validate turnovers by scoring points?
‘First of all, the defense has done an incredible job of turning the ball over this year. Anytime offensively that we can get an extra possession that way or a possession that starts in positive territory where we don’t have to move the ball 70 or 80 yards to score, I think it’s a great advantage for any team. And I think you are right: when the defense creates a turnover or special teams creates a turnover, some of the time this year they’ve actually scored with the ball, which I think the offense gets a tremendous amount of energy from. Your sideline gets a lot of life thrown into it and then other times they create the turnover, whether it be an interception or a big hit and a fumble and without question, that puts a spark into not only the offense, but the entire team. We always take the field with the mindset that we want to score touchdowns and maybe there’s a little extra incentive to follow through on a great defensive series that resulted in a turnover with six points. But, I think our guys have really tried to respond to those quick changes where all of a sudden we’re on defense and then, bang, we’re on offense right away in great field position. They’ve gone out there and done a great job of executing in those situations and really trying to cap off those turnovers with scores.’
What have you seen from Julian Edelman  that has allowed him to break out recently?
‘Julian has really had, I would say, a strong overall year where he’s really tried to continue to work hard and get better, starting back in the spring and then in training camp and then he made a few plays for us there in the early portion of the season before he had the hand injury. Now he’s really kind of working back into things. Julian’s work ethic is obviously a very big positive for our offense. He goes to practice every day and does everything we ask him to do with great effort, pays attention to detail. I think as young player, he’s getting better and better. I think this is just a simple case of that he’s had some opportunities based on the way the defense has played our offense and when the ball has come his way, he’s surely done a nice job of taking advantage of those opportunities.’
Now that Shane Vereen  has been able to contribute in games, what does he do to improve the complementary level of the running back corps?
‘Shane is another young player that has been patient, continues to work extremely hard and prepare each week. His opportunities have picked up in certain situations or in certain games, based on either what the defense is doing or what our plan was going in. I think he’s taken advantage of the opportunities he’s been given. We have a lot of confidence in the entire backfield. The group that is in that room, there’re a lot of young players that we know will continue to work hard and try to get better. But they have all kind of have carved out roles for themselves. I don’t think anybody on our team feels bad if any one of those players has the ball in his hands on any play, whether that be Stevan [Ridley] or Shane, Danny [Woodhead ] or Brandon [Bolden]. They’ve all done good things with it this year and we would expect that they continue to work hard and improve going forward.’
When you get a big lead in a game, does that allow you to experiment with the playbook in a way that you would not if the score was closer?
‘No I don’t think so. I think that when you’re fortunate to enough to be in a situation where you have a big lead in the second half, I think you’re balancing a couple things. Certainly, I think you want to try to play the game that you set out to play until the decision has been made to change that. Our mentality is always going to be to try to go out there and try to score. That’s what our job is. That’s why we’re on the field and I think our team knows that. We respond best to that. I think that’s what our mentality is. I think that you also have to make sure under those circumstances, that like you do on every other play of the game, but maybe even more so at that point is take care of the football, make smart decisions and realize that you don’t want to put yourself in jeopardy of doing anything to put them right back into the game. As far as plays or specific things are concerned, you just call the game the way we would call it, be aggressive and go down and try to score points and finish every drive with a touchdown if we can and I think our guys respond to that. They did a decent job of that last night.’