Patriots will have their hands full with Jones


Patriots will have their hands full with Jones

FOXBORO -- When Texans kick returner Danieal Manning returned four kicks for a combined 216 yards in New England's 41-28 Divisional Round win last week, alarm bells went off around Gillette Stadium. Both coach Bill Belichick and special teams captain Matthew Slater stated the obvious: The Patriots needed better coverage.

That's especially true this week considering the Ravens will be in town Sunday for the AFC Championship Game. Baltimore's Jacoby Jones was one of the NFL's most dynamic kick returners during the regular season, putting up a 30.7 yards per return average, which was the best in the league.

On Thursday, Slater said that Jones' size -- he measures in at 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds -- combined with his speed make him tough to tackle on kickoff returns.

"Hes got tremendous speed," Slater said. "Jacobys actually a taller, bigger guy for a returner. He breaks a lot of tackles. He has a great feel for their scheme and what theyre trying to do. He runs hard, theres no hesitation, when he sees something he goes. Hes very aggressive. He takes chances, but they pay off. He does a lot of things well. He handles things well; handles situations great. Well have our hands full trying to cover him."

Jones is the kind of player that is almost impossible to simulate in practices, making him even more difficult to prepare for.

"The guys have been working hard all week to kind of give us a look at him," Slater said. "But I think a guy like that, hes so unique that its hard to really know what its going to be like until we get in the game. Weve watched a ton of film on him and the guys on the scout team have done a good job of giving us a good look. Like I said, Jacoby, his skill set is really unique. I dont really think theres a returner in the league with his physical presence because hes such a big guy and the speed that he has. Its tough to simulate but hopefully were getting a good look at it in practice and well be ready on Sunday."

The Patriots kick coverage team lucked out against the Texans. When Manning broke the game's opening kick for 94 yards, he ran out of steam and was caught from behind by Patriots safety Devin McCourty. The Texans were held out of the end zone during their subsequent offensive series and had to settle for a field goal.

McCourty said that the kick team knows if something similar happens against Jones, they aren't going to be able to bail themselves out.

"We have to just be sound," McCourty said. "We cant allow him to run around and make those big plays. He's a very fast guy. If he breaks out I doubt well be able to catch him, so it will be key to just try to contain him and keep him away from making those big plays on special teams because this time of year you really cant afford to give up those huge plays."

But that was last week. The Patriots will come into their AFC Championship rematch with Baltimore with a new outlook as they try to recapture the form that made them one of the best kickoff units in the league during the regular season. They allowed just 20.5 yards per return, which was third-best in the league.

"Weve put the Texans game behind us," Slater said. "Once we got in here and watched the tape, we understand we didnt perform the way we wanted to. We are fortunate enough to have an opportunity to go out and get that fixed. Theres no time to hang our head now going against arguably the best returner in the league after the year he had this year and a good special teams unit all around. Weve been working hard to correct the issues that we had and hopefully weve got them fixed and we can go out and perform well on Sunday."

Haggerty: So what exactly has happened to the Bruins-Habs rivalry?


Haggerty: So what exactly has happened to the Bruins-Habs rivalry?

BRIGHTON, MASS -- It didn’t take last season’s embarrassing Winter Classic result to figure out something has been missing from the storied, legendary Bruins-Canadiens rivalry over the last few years.

The last traces of the latest, great incarnation of the B’s-Habs rivalry were clearly still there a couple of seasons ago when the two hockey clubs met in the second round of the playoffs. After falling short the last few times the teams met in the postseason, Boston was summarily dismissed by Montreal in Game 7 on their own home ice during that series. The following season the B’s simply had so many of their own players struggling to put out a consistent effort, so the games against the Habs didn’t really register highly on the importance scale, and last season both Boston and Montreal suffered through subpar seasons that saw them each fall short of the playoffs.

Since the second round loss to the Habs in the 2013-14 playoffs, the Bruins are 2-7 while being outscored by a 31-18 margin in nine regular season meetings over the last two seasons in an incredibly one-sided chapter in the two teams’ shared history. The real lack of competitiveness has been a noticeable lack of deep emotion or ill will on the ice between the two hockey clubs, and that is very different from the recent past when signature players like Milan Lucic, P.K. Subban and Shawn Thornton were card-carrying members of healthy hate that regularly spilled out on the ice between the two rival NHL organizations.

Instead it will probably be new blood that breathes glorious, hard-edged life into the history between the two Original Six teams, and new personalities like David Backes, Shea Weber and Andrew Shaw are likely to do just that. Certainly the Canadiens wanted to be much more difficult to play against in recruiting players like Shaw and Weber, and, their presence along with the offensively explosive Alex Radulov, could make it a tough matchup for the Black and Gold.

Either way, the Bruins are curious to see what the matchup looks like this season with the electric P.K. Subban removed from the mix as one of the classic Habs villain-type characters from a Boston perspective.

“It’s always fun to play Montreal at home, or in Montreal. This will be our second time counting the preseason, and our first time at the Garden. It’s going to be pretty cool,” said David Krejci. “When you say any NHL team there are a few names that pop out for that team, and [P.K. Subban] was definitely one of them [for Montreal]. But P.K. is gone, and now it’s Shea Weber. So it’s going to be a little different, but he’s a hell of a player as well so it isn’t going to be any easier.

“It’s a big game. It’s a division game. We don’t want to take any game lightly within the 82 games because you don’t know what can happen at the end. When those games against [Montreal] are done you always feel like you’ve played two games, and not just one. It’s high intensity, and it’s obviously a rivalry that you get up for.”

As Bruins head coach Claude Julien would say it, things are a bit too civilized between the two enemy teams when thinking back to the days of Georges Laraque chasing Milan Lucic around the ice challenging him a fight on the Bell Centre ice, or the awful epoch in B’s-Habs history when Zdeno Chara clobbered Max Pacioretty with a dangerous, injury-inducing hit into the stanchion area.

Nobody is looking for players to get hurt on borderline plays when the two teams suit up on Saturday night, but something to introduce a new chapter into the Boston-Montreal rivalry would be a good thing for both teams, a good thing for the fans and a potentially great thing for an NHL that prides itself on good, old-fashioned rivalries.

“We need to make sure that we’re ready to play [on Saturday]. I like the way that we’ve played so far, and except for Toronto we’ve managed to compete with all of the teams that we’ve played against,” said Julien. “I don’t know if it’s going to stay that way, but I’m going to use the word that [the rivalry] has been more civilized for the last few years. There hasn’t been as much of the sideshow as there has been [in the past].

“I think there’s still a lot of hatred between the two organizations when they meet, but I think the way the game is trending, and how costly that penalties can be in a game, both teams are a little cautious in that way. I still think there is great intensity and both teams get up for the games, so hopefully that happens tomorrow, and the fans get to see a good game.”

One thing that should ensure a good, familiar showdown with plenty of hard-hitting and honest-to-goodness rivalry-like behavior: both the Canadiens and Bruins are off to strong starts at the top of the Atlantic Division in the first couple of weeks this season, and there are some new faces that are undoubtedly going to want to announce their presence for these Bruins-Habs tilts with authority.

Let’s hope this happens because last season’s Bruins-Habs games needed a pair of jumper cables and 1.21 jigowatts of electricity to shock them back into their elevated level of intensity, and that’s when hockey is served best after all.