Ravens have had problems in kick game

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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.

With Thomas drawing attention, Stevens turns to Rozier in big moment

With Thomas drawing attention, Stevens turns to Rozier in big moment

BOSTON – Prior to Saturday’s game, Terry Rozier talked to CSNNE.com about the importance of staying ready always, because “you never know when your name or number is going to be called.”

Like when trailing by three points in the fourth quarter with less than 10 seconds to play?

Yes, Rozier was on the floor in that scenario and the second-year guard delivered when his team needed it.

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But Rozier’s fourth quarter heroics which forced overtime against Portland, did not provide that much-needed jolt that Boston needed as the Blazers managed to fend off the Celtics in overtime, 127-123.

For Rozier’s part, he had 15 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

The 15 points scored for Rozier was the most for him since he tallied 16 in a 30-point Celtics win at Orlando on Dec. 7.

But more than the points, the decision by head coach Brad Stevens to draw up a play for him in that moment, a time when most of what Boston does revolves around the shooting of Isaiah Thomas who has been among the top-3 scorers in the fourth quarter most of this season, was surprising to many.

And at that point in the game, Thomas already had 13 fourth-quarter points.

Stevens confirmed after the game that the last shot in the fourth was indeed for Rozier, but Thomas’ presence on the floor was important to its execution.

“He (Thomas) also draws a lot of attention,” Stevens said. “So I think you just weigh kind of … what kind of shot you’re going to get, depending on who it is.”

Rozier had initially screened for Thomas, and Thomas came back and screened for him.

“I was open as soon as I caught … and I let it fly,” Rozier said. “Coach drew up a play for me and it felt good to see the ball go in.”

Being on the floor at that time, win or lose, was a victory of sorts for Rozier.

He has seen first-hand how quickly the tide can change in the NBA for a young player.

After a strong summer league showing and a solid training camp, Rozier had earned himself a firm spot in the team’s regular rotation.

But a series of not-so-great games coupled with Gerald Green’s breakout night on Christmas Day, led to his playing time since then becoming more sporadic.

Rozier, in an interview with CSNNE.com, acknowledged it hasn’t been easy going from playing regular minutes to not being sure how much court time, if any, he would receive.

But he says the veterans on the team have been good about keeping his spirits up, and one in particular – Avery Bradley – has been especially helpful.

Like Rozier, Bradley’s first couple of years saw his playing time go from non-existent to inconsistent. But Bradley stayed the course and listened to the team’s veterans who continued to tell him that his hard work would pay off sooner or later.

Those same words of wisdom Bradley received in his early days, he passes on to Rozier.

“It’s big,” Rozier told CSNNE.com. “He (Bradley) tells me things like that. I felt I was ready for this (inconsistent minutes) after all that he told me. It’s big to have a guy like him that has been through it all with a championship team, been around this organization for a while; have him talk to you is big. It’s always good. That’s why I stay positive, and be ready.”

Which is part of the reason why Stevens didn’t hesitate to call up a play for the second-year guard despite him being a 33.3 percent shooter from 3-point range this season – that ranks eighth on this team, mind you.

“He’s a really good shooter,” Stevens said of Rozier. “I think with more opportunity that will show itself true, but he made some big ones in the fourth quarter. We went to him a few different times out of time-outs, and felt good about him making that one.”

And to know that Stevens will turn to him not just to spell Thomas or one of the team’s other guards, but to actually make a game-altering play in the final seconds … that’s major.

“It helps tremendously,” said Rozier who added that his confidence is through “the roof. It makes me want to do everything. You know defense, all of that. It’s great, especially to have a guy like Brad trust you."