In last week’s win over the Houston Texans, the New England Patriots played very well in most aspects of the game but struggled in covering kickoffs. On Sunday the Patriots will lineup against the league’s best kickoff unit in the Baltimore Ravens led by returner Jacoby Jones. It’s an aspect that the team is aware they must perform better at Sunday and could determine the outcome of the game.
On Friday the Patriots wrapped up their preparations for the upcoming AFC championship game ending it with one final meeting. That meeting was with the kickoff coverage unit. In last week’s game the Patriots players had trouble getting off single blocks which they must improve on Sunday. They also didn’t get enough leverage against the wedge which allowed the Texans to run up the middle with too much success. If they play the same way Sunday it will only get worse against the Ravens.
Last week the game got off to an explosive start when Danieal Manning opened with a 94-yard kickoff return only kept out of the end zone by Devin McCourty who caught the returner from behind. The Texans ability to do that is troubling for New England considering that the Ravens led the NFL in 2012 with a 27.3-yard return average. While the new kickoff rules have hampered many teams ability to score off kickoffs, the Ravens have still been able to do so.
To be fair, the Patriots kickoff coverage unit did have a strong regular season ranking third in the league giving up 20.5 yards a return. But the playoffs are about momentum and how a team is playing at that current moment and last week the Patriots struggled mightily in that aspect of the game.
An important weapon for the Patriots Sunday may be kicker Stephen Gostkowski but not in the way you would expect. While field goals could very well be important considering that the last two times these teams faced each other it came down to a final field goal attempt, Gostkowski’s kickoffs could be just as important. His ability to kick the ball through the end zone forcing a touchback could save the Patriots defense valuable yards.
The Patriots have been arguably the best team in the league since week six and that includes last week’s performance against Houston. The offense has been virtually unstoppable and the defense has steadily improved throughout the season. But last week kickoff coverage was an issue and as they welcome in the top kickoff unit in the league Sunday, they must cover better. That could end up being a determining factor in the game.