Ravens have had problems in kick game

648344.jpg

Ravens have had problems in kick game

FOXBORO -- The matchups for Sunday's AFC title game have been well-established: Great Offense vs. Great Defense. Vindication-seeking Defense vs. Vindication-seeking Quarterback.

Yet the oft-forgotten third element of the game, special teams, could also play a deciding role on Sunday.

The kicking game was an area of concern for the Ravens for much of the regular season. They ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed per kickoff return (29.2) and 24th in the league in yards allowed per punt return (11.9). They were also prone to giving up big plays when kicking it away. They tied Carolina, Oakland and Seattle with three kicks allowed for touchdowns (2 kickoff returns, 1 punt return).

When Baltimore received the ball, the results weren't much better as its special teamers had a tendency to put the ball on the ground. Kickoff return man David Reed fumbled three times during the regular season, including two on kickoff returns in a 22-17 Week 10 loss to the Seahawks.

Starting cornerback Ladarius Webb returned the first Texans kick in their Divisional Playoff game last week, but he fumbled that job away, too -- literally and figuratively. Though Webb continued to return punts for the Ravens, Tom Zbikowski received kicks for the remainder of last week's game.

With some uncertainty among Baltimore's return men, might the Patriots smell an opportunity for a game-changing play on special teams?

"We try to get the ball out every time if we could," New England special teams captain Matthew Slater said on Friday. "Those guys have had their problems but they're still a very tough unit. We have our work cut out for us, especially with coach John Harbaugh and his background in special teams. They'll be ready. I'm sure they'll be holding on to the ball, they'll make it tough on us."

The Patriots haven't been world-beaters returning kicks. They ranked 29th in the league in return yards per kickoff (21.4) and 16th in the league in punt returns (10.3). But if they can force a special teams turnover, it could change the entire tenor of a contest that may be kept close because of how the Ravens and Pats match up in the game's other phases.

One more trend worth keeping an eye on is how Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff kicks away from home. He has struggled kicking on the road this year, with all nine of his missed kicks coming away from Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. He's seen a significant drop-off in accuracy since last season, too, hitting on just 75.7 percent of his kicks after making a Pro Bowl-worthy 89.7 percent of his tries last season.

Belichick says all three QBs could use more game reps

patriots-belichick-012516.jpg

Belichick says all three QBs could use more game reps

Bill Belichick was expansive Saturday when asked on a conference call how he'll split the quarterback reps for the Patriots final preseason game Thursday in New York.

"I think that’s a good question, it’s a fair question, it’s one that we really have to give some good consideration to," Belichick began. "As I said before, I think whatever we do will benefit whoever does it. We want to get Jimmy [Garoppolo] ready for the Arizona game. Tom [Brady] isn’t going to be playing for a while, so it’s kind of his last chance to play until he comes back after a few weeks. Jacoby [Brissett] certainly could use all the playing time that he can get. I think that whichever players we play will benefit from it and it will be valuable to them. We could play all three quarterbacks a lot next week and they’d all benefit from that and it would all be good, but we can’t."

Since they can't, Belichick said there will be situational work done with whoever isn't going to get the game reps.

"We only have one game and so many snaps, so we’ll have to, between practice and the game, put them in some situations that are somewhat controllable like a two-minute situation or things like that that you know are going to kind of come up one way or another," said Belichick. "You can sort of control those in how you want those broken down, what’s best, what does each guy need and how can we get the best we need for each guy. I need to let them get the reps that they need, but it’s how do we get the team ready for what they need to be ready for. They all need to get ready for different things.

What Jimmy’s role is in a couple weeks is going to be a lot different than what Tom’s is, and it’s going to be a lot different than what Jacoby’s is. At some point later on, those roles are going to change again. So again, there’s no perfect solution to it. We’ll just do the best we can to try to have our individual players and our team as well prepared as possible at whatever point that is that we have to deal with, and whenever those situations come up."

As I wrote earlier today, this is the sticky and uncomfortable situation arising from Deflategate. It's not a Tom Brady penalty. It's a team penalty when one considers the ripple effects. And there's no handbook to consult.

 

Saturday's Red Sox-Royals lineups: Young in LF, Hill at 3B vs. KC lefty Duffy

red_sox_chris_young_041116.jpg

Saturday's Red Sox-Royals lineups: Young in LF, Hill at 3B vs. KC lefty Duffy

The Red Sox look to end their three-game losing streak tonight when the play the middle game of their three-game series with the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park.

Against Royals' left-hander Danny Duffy (11-1, 2.66 ERA), the Red Sox start right-handed hitters Chris Young in left field and Aaron Hill at third base. Duffy has won his past 10 decisions and came into Saturday with the fifth-best ERA in the American League. He joined the rotation from the bullpen on June 1.

Left-hander David Price (12-8, 4.00) gets the start for the Red Sox. Price has won his past three decisions, going eight, six and eight innings and not allowing more than three runs in each start. 

The Royals won the series opener 6-3 Friday night.

The lineups:

ROYALS
Paulo Orlando CF
Cheslor Cuthbert 3B
Lorenzo Cain RF
Eric Hosmer 1B
Kendrys Morales DH
Salvador Perez C
Alex Gordon LF
Alcides Escobar SS
Christian Colon 2B
---
Danny Duffy LHP

RED SOX
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Xander Bogaerts SS
David Ortiz DH
Mookie Betts RF
Hanley Ramirez 1B
Sandy Leon C
Chris Young LF
Aaron Hill 3B
Jackie Bradley Jr. CF
---
David Price LHP

Saturday, Aug. 27: Adding toughness Habs' priority

cp-morning-skate.jpg

Saturday, Aug. 27: Adding toughness Habs' priority

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, after a busy morning celebrating my 3-year-old’s birthday at the trampoline park. Yee-ha.

*PHT writer Joey Alfieri says that adding toughness was a big offseason priority for the Montreal Canadiens.

*There’s at least one big fan of the Edmonton Oilers trade that brought defenseman Adam Larsson from the New Jersey Devils, and that fan’s name is Mark Letestu.

*Here’s everything you need to know about the Ice Guardians movie premiering this fall that takes a long, balanced look at the NHL enforcers.

*Roberto Luongo has an alibi for the robbery in Winnipeg with one suspect getting away in goalie equipment, and it’s funny as you would expect it to be.

*CSN Washington takes a look at the New York Rangers in their season previews for the Metro Division.

*I’m not entirely sure whether this “RIP Harambe” thing is genuine or meant to be ironic by the largely millenial group that seem so enamored with it, but I think it’s just stupid. I think the same with the crying Jordan meme…also stupid.

*For something completely different: a look at how Triumph the Insult Comic Dog learned how to poop on Trump’s politics.