FOXBORO, Mass. — Donte Stallworth‘s return to the Patriots came under some unfortunate circumstances. But the veteran receiver made the most of his homecoming, leaving a big mark on maybe the “biggest game of the year.”
Julian Edelman‘s season-ending injury was an ill-fated reality that the Patriots, and Stallworth himself, had to deal with heading into the stretch run of the season. Stallworth, who shares a tight bond with Edelman, lamented the circumstances that led to his return. But in the face of the challenge, he’s added a new element to the Patriots’ offense.
Stallworth took nearly an entire half to adjust to the pace of the game, only seeing seven snaps in the first half. But once he got back into that rhythm, it felt like 2007 again.
After just barely missing on a deep connection with Stallworth early in the third quarter, Tom Brady went back to his new, old toy and decided to give the play another go. The second time proved to be the charm, too, as Stallworth made an impressive grab, pulling down the deep ball with one hand and taking it the full 63 yards in for the touchdown.
The opportunity wasn’t unexpected, though. Stallworth admitted afterward that the play was something the Patriots had been practicing all year, even when he was with the team. It just took the right time and the right personnel to execute it.
“That particular play is something that we had worked on, even in the Spring,” Stallworth said. “It was just an opportunity where they were kind of flat-footed and it gave me an opportunity to run by the guy and Tommy made a great throw. He put it up for me to catch it and that’s what I did.”
The play impressed even the harshest of critics, as Bill Belichick praised Stallworth for his effort on what the coach deemed to be “a huge play in the game.”
“Donté is always in good shape, works hard, dependable player that got an opportunity, stepped up and made it happen,” Belichick said glowingly of Stallworth.
Beyond the big pitch and catch, though, the Patriots may have finally found the deep threat they’ve so sought after since Randy Moss, who returns with the 49ers this weekend, was forced out of town. Chad Johnson didn’t pan out in that role, and as it turns out Brandon Lloyd, while improving, doesn’t quite fit the mold either. But Stallworth may just have what it takes to be that answer.
Even at 32, Stallworth still has the game-breaking speed that made him such a hot commodity coming out of Tennessee a little over a decade ago. Maybe he’s not exactly as quick as he was when the Patriots brought him here in 2007, but he’s not far off the pace.
Receivers tend to rapidly lose their speed as they enter their 30s, and Stallworth isn’t free of that curse. But while the likes Deion Branch have noticeably lost a step, or a few, Stallworth still seems to have plenty of legs left.
He may not be the long-term answer the Patriots may be looking for. Heck, he may not have a place here beyond this season. But for the time being, at the very least, Stallworth has proven capable of filling that void and adding yet another dangerous tool to the Patriots’ already stocked arsenal.
Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.