Patriots activate cornerback Duke Dawson off IR
FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots activated cornerback Duke Dawson off injured reserve Tuesday, getting one of the two players designated to return from that list back in the fold at the start of their bye week.
To create roster space, New England released running back Kenjon Barner and linebacker Nicholas Grigsby, a core special teams player.
Dawson, drafted in the second round in 2018, missed time in training camp and the preseason because of a hamstring injury. Bill Belichick said the Patriots ran out of time for him to get healthy and chose to put him on IR.
Dawson returned to practice two weeks ago, so with those sessions under his belt and two weeks until the Patriots next game, he’ll have had close to a month to prepare to play. Still, nothing beats game reps for a rookie to develop, and Dawson hasn’t played an NFL snap.
His expected role is slot cornerback, where Jonathan Jones is playing the most snaps. Adding Dawson to the mix provides welcome depth, since the Patriots lost Eric Rowe, who started the season playing mostly outside but played in the slot last year, for the season two weeks ago.
Allen to miss time
Patriots tight end Dwayne Allen is expected to miss a few weeks with a knee injury, although it won’t require surgery, according to NFL Network.
Allen suffered the injury Sunday against the Titans, colliding with teammate Trent Brown on a long completion to Josh Gordon in the third quarter. He tried to give it a go but eventually had to take himself out.
Allen has appeared in all 10 games for the Patriots this season, starting six. He has three catches on four targets for 27 yards and has played 43.4 percent of offensive snaps.
New England’s tight end group has been banged up all season. All-Pro Rob Gronkowski, who has been battling back and ankle injuries, sat out three of the last four games. Second-year man Jacob Hollister, who played Sunday, has been nagged by a hamstring injury, missing all but four games.
We’ve checked in with the Patriots kickoff coverage unit a few times throughout the season and, even though they’ve been statistically poor overall, have always assumed that a Belichick team would figure it out. But after 10 games, there’s a big sample size that shows New England’s kickoff coverage (punt coverage, too, for that matter) is among the NFL’s worst.
“Yeah, I’m sure that will definitely be up there,” said safety Devin McCourty, asked if covering kicks would be among the major topics addressed during the bye week. “I don’t know where we rank, but I doubt it’s very good on kickoffs.”
Stephen Gostkowski’s opening kickoff Sunday in Nashville was returned 58 yards, giving the Titans excellent starting field position on a drive that ended in a touchdown. Overall, only the Chargers have allowed more return yardage on kickoffs than the Patriots, who have allowed 714. By average return, New England is fourth-worst at 26.4 yards per return. In terms of punt coverage, the Patriots are not much better: fifth-worst in total yards allowed on punt returns (222), second-worst by average yards allowed (13.1) per punt return.
What all that means is that a defense that had the best starting field position in football last year has a slimmer margin for error this year, when opponents are starting drives on average at their 30.7 yard line.
“I think we’ve had our moments,” Belichick said Tuesday, specifically referring to kickoff coverage. “At times, we’ve covered well, but as you point out, we haven’t and have probably had more breakdowns in that area than what we are used to having in previous years. It’s definitely an issue.”
As far as what impact the new kickoff rules implement this year have had, Belichick said he doesn’t “think it’s a rule thing as much as we’ve got to coach it better,” though he did say that the new rules were relevant.
“They’ve eliminated some things that you can do on the kickoff team that we’ve done in the past,” Belichick said.
In past statements this season, Belichick has said that the rule changes made very little difference. That was McCourty’s essential stance Tuesday, that “kickoff is still kickoff.”
“Just got to tackle the ball carrier,” he said.
McCourty said covering kicks would only get more important later in the year.
“I’m sure that will definitely be up there for one of the things that we need to improve, especially going forward in the season when there will probably be less touchbacks, the weather will change,” McCourty said. “We’ve seen kickoffs be a huge part of games that we’ve played in, whether we’re up or down it’s a part of momentum swings.”
Players are happy to have a bye week whenever it comes, but having played 10 games and a lot in prime time recently, Patriots players said they feel like they need the rest.
“We’re banged up — everybody knows it,” Phillip Dorsett said. “We need to get some bodies back. We need to get our minds back. We’ve played a lot of football with no breaks, and I think this is literally the perfect time for us.”
Particularly on offense, the Patriots could use a breather. Gronkowski (ankle/back), Brown (back), Julian Edelman (ankle), Allen (knee), Hollister (hamstring), Shaq Mason (calf), and Sony Michel (knee) are all recovering. Marcus Cannon left Sunday’s game briefly but went back in.
By NFL injury report standards, that’s not an exceptionally long list, but it skews heavily toward the players who protect Tom Brady. Two or three starting linemen, depending on how you count Cannon, both tight ends who block, the back who demands the most attention as a runner, and Brady’s favorite target on quick throws are all hurting.
Rachel G. Bowers of the Globe staff contributed. Nora Princiotti can be reached at email@example.com.