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."