Ravens have had problems in kick game


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.

Bruins need to "find a way to start playing with a lead"

Bruins need to "find a way to start playing with a lead"

BOSTON -- There’s only so long that a team can hope to thrive, or even survive, in the NHL if they’re constantly chasing the game on the scoreboard, and chasing the puck after digging themselves a hole. The Bruins have been that team in the first couple of weeks during the regular season, and made it five times in five games that they’ve given up the game’s first goal in an eventual 4-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens at TD Garden.

It’s a pattern that is long past getting old to Bruins head coach Claude Julien, who can’t seem to play the front-runner this season despite three comebacks that have allowed for a 3-2-0 record overall this season.

“I hope it’s not a habit. It’s certainly not what we’re looking for, but there’s no doubt. I think it’s pretty obvious that with the amount of games we’ve played, five games, we haven’t scored first,” said Julien. “We talked about that this morning, trying to get that first goal, and it hasn’t happened yet.”

The start to the game wasn’t really the problem on Saturday night as it’s been a couple of times this season. Instead the Bruins enjoyed a handful of quality scoring chances in the opening 20 minutes against the Habs, but couldn’t come through and finish off those plays when it might have meant an early lead.

Instead it lead to what Julien termed a “terrible” second period that was flat, full of mistakes and ended with the B’s trailing Montreal by a couple of goals. The Bruins scratched and clawed their way to making it a one-goal game in the third period, but that was as close as the Black and Gold would get in losing their ninth straight home game to the arch-rival Canadiens.

“It’s kind of been a story about how things are going for us this far, we’ve got to find a way to start playing with a lead. If you don’t capitalize on your chances, you see what happens when you come out [flat] in the second period,” said Torey Krug, who finished a game-worst minus-3 in the loss for the Bruins. “We had another poor second period and you know it’s kind of… you got to make sure that we put our hand on that and it doesn’t become a thing for the team this year. You see that when you don’t capitalize on chances early, that’s what’s going to happen.”

It’s been a positive development that the Bruins have shown the willingness and backbone to fight back into games after early deficits, and they showed that quality once again on Saturday night by scoring a couple of goals in the third period to keep things close. But the Bruins would be best served if they can start lighting the lamp a little earlier in these games, and see how the other half lives by playing with a comfortable lead every once in a while.