FOXBOROUGH — One aspect of Sunday’s game that can often get overlooked might play a big role in deciding the outcome, since it has everything to do with field position, and every yard counts in a close game, which is what the Patriots and Ravens have played recently.
Baltimore has two of the best return men in the NFL, and the Patriots will look at every available option to minimize their impact.
Jacoby Jones might be a familiar name to many football fans. He easily could have been the MVP of last season’s Super Bowl, returning the second-half kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown, and adding a 56-yard touchdown reception in the 34-31 win over San Francisco.
Jones has picked up right where he left off. He’s second in the league in kickoff return average, getting 28.8 yards per attempt, and brought one back 77 yards for a touchdown two weeks ago against Minnesota.
Tandon Doss is an equally capable punt returner. He leads the league with a 15.6-yard average on 23 returns, and also has one return touchdown on the season, an 82-yarder. Together, Doss and Jones pose a very dangerous special teams duo.
“It’ll be one of the toughest challenges we’ve had all year with Jacoby back there, he’s really one of the best in our league,” said Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater. “We need to do a good job of getting a lot of hats to the ball. Steve [Gostkowski] and Ryan [Allen] will do a good job, like they always do, but it’s been a point of emphasis for us all week, and we’ll have to execute it in the game.”
Gostkowski is one of the best in the NFL at denying a kickoff returner the chance to do his thing, since nearly two of every three Patriots kickoffs have resulted in a touchback. Allen has a 45.6-yard average in his first year as punter, but more importantly, the Patriots have covered well for him. Only seven teams have allowed fewer punt return yards this season; the Patriots give up 13.2 yards per game.
If Gostkowski can send most kickoffs deep into the end zone, and Allen — either through above-average hang time, punting toward the sidelines, or even out of bounds — is able to keep the ball out of Doss’s hands, the Ravens’ specialists might not be a big factor.
“Ultimately, that’s the goal, you want to limit their chances and give them not much to work with, give your coverage team the best opportunity to get down there and make plays,” Allen said. “Use all the aspects of what we’re trying to do together that can give us the best outcome.”
In a season full of firsts for rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, another milestone has been added the past two weeks. It’s one he’d prefer not to have.
Thompkins has missed the past two games while dealing with a hip injury, which he suffered Dec. 1 at Houston. Thompkins said it’s the first time in his football career — youth, high school, college, and now the NFL — that an injury has forced him to sit.
“Injuries are part of the game, but I’ve never been a guy that really got injured, maybe a hamstring before, but I never had a serious injury, never missed a game, so this is definitely a first for me,” Thompkins said.
With receiver Josh Boyce ruled out for Sunday’s game because of an ankle injury, the return of Thompkins and fellow rookie Aaron Dobson, who has missed three straight games with a foot injury, could be timely. They have similar numbers: Thompkins has 32 receptions for 466 yards and four touchdowns, while Dobson has caught 35 passes for 492 yards and also four scores.
Dobson said on Thursday that he’s optimistic about his chances of playing against the Ravens. Thompkins wouldn’t go that far, choosing the safe route with his words.
“We’ll have to see,” he said. “I’m just taking it day-by-day, doing what they’re allowing me to do.”
Thompkins and Dobson were listed by the Patriots as questionable to play on Sunday, joining five others, including left tackle Nate Solder, who missed practice Wednesday after sustaining his second concussion in two weeks. Boyce was the only player ruled out.
The Ravens have had more than their share of success against the Patriots, winning two straight games, both last season. The Patriots won four of the five games before that, but all four victories were close. What makes the Patriots such a good matchup for the Ravens? “I think it’s just we know them and they know us. It’s kind of one of those old deals where, there’s just no tricks to the game,” said Baltimore running back Ray Rice. “It usually comes down to who wants it more and who execute better. That’s usually how it goes.” . . . On Thursday night, the Patriots altered their typical Friday schedule, practicing early and meeting with the media before the workout. The reason? They went, as a team, to a movie on Friday afternoon at Patriot Place, seeing “Lone Survivior,” a soon-to-be-released re-telling of a Navy SEALs mission starring Mark Wahlberg.