FOXBOROUGH — Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater appeared to be in no mood to discuss his group’s performance on kickoff coverage against the Texans when media descended upon Gillette Stadium Monday to rehash Sunday’s win and start looking ahead to the AFC Championship game.
Though he is one of 11 players on the field, Slater takes it personally when the kick coverage team does not play up to par, and he is the first to take the blame for any problems.
So after Houston’s Danieal Manning took the opening kickoff 94 yards, putting his team 12 yards from the end zone just seconds into the game, Slater was not happy.
Nor was he happy when Manning returned Stephen Gostkowski’s fourth kickoff 35 yards, a play that became 50 yards when Gostkowski was flagged for a horse-collar tackle.
Or in the fourth quarter, when Manning had a 69-yard return.
Houston put points on the board after each of those, though the Patriots’ defense held Houston to a field goal after that opening 94-yarder.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was complimentary of the unit’s regular-season play, but this is not the time for cracks in the armor: Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones was named All-Pro after averaging 30.7 yards per kickoff return this season, with two touchdowns.
“We gotta get better,” Slater said Monday. “It’s very important. We know we need to perform better. We can’t put our defense in bad situations, so we’re onto the next game; we’ve got to prepare for Jacoby. We know how good he is and what he’s capable of.
“I’m confident we’ll have it fixed.”
New England had one of the best kickoff-coverage groups in the NFL this season. Though the Patriots kicked off a league-high 112 times (Denver, with 99 kickoffs, was second), Gostkowski had 52 touchbacks, and the Patriots held opponents inside the 20-yard line 24 times.
Teams had an average starting point of the 20.9-yard line.
The longest return the Patriots gave up in the regular season was 62 yards, to the 49ers’ LaMichael James. The Jets’ Joe McKnight had returns of 37 and 41 yards in New York’s two games against New England.
New England did not face Jones as a kick returner in the September game against the Ravens.
Belichick, a former special teams coordinator, acknowledged that Sunday’s game wasn’t the best for the kick coverage group, but he didn’t sound worried in a Monday conference call.
“Overall our kickoff coverage this year has been one of the best things we’ve done all year. We’re right at the top of the league in kickoff coverage,” Belichick said. “We didn’t have a good play in the San Francisco game and then we had three bad plays yesterday, but overall that’s been probably as consistent as anything we’ve done as a football team for the entire season.
“Of course it’s disappointing. Those are plays that you don’t want to happen, certainly not three of them in one game. That’s not what we want. That’s not good enough. It has to be better.”
Asked what the Patriots had to improve on, Slater said simply, “Lane integrity and defeating blocks.” On Manning’s opening kick return, Slater was double-teamed, which happens often for the Pro Bowler.
When Manning cut to his left, he had a fairly clear path — Devin McCourty had been shoved out of the way by James Casey, and Tavon Wilson was blocked out of Manning’s path as well.
After Gostkowski’s effort to tackle him failed, Manning had nothing but open field in front of him — though behind him he had a fast-closing McCourty, who made the touchdown-saving tackle. If McCourty had not made the tackle, Kyle Arrington, who came from the other side of the field, likely would have.
“We face good returners every week,” Belichick said when asked about the dangerous Jones. “We have to do a better job than what we did [against Houston]. It starts with me — better coaching, better playing — we just have to do a better job.
“We’ve done a good job there pretty much all year, as good as anybody in the league has, but it wasn’t anywhere near our standard or where it needs to be yesterday. You just can’t put a team in that kind of field position consistently, and that’s what we did.”
Of course, New England didn’t have quite the problem that Baltimore did on kickoff coverage in its game against Denver — after not allowing a return longer than 42 yards in the regular season, the Ravens saw the Broncos’ Trindon Holliday run a kickoff back 104 yards for a touchdown.
Holliday also had a punt-return touchdown.
It isn’t a tough fix for the Patriots, Slater said, “just go back to basics, go back to fundamental rules that we have as players, and just doing our assignments better.
“Kickoff coverage has been a strength for us, and like I said, I’m confident we’ll get it fixed.”