It was Week 8 against the Rams.
Ellis Hobbs broke through the first wave of kickoff coverage, and only St. Louis
kicker Josh Brown stood between him and the end zone.
Brown forced Hobbs out of bounds at midfield, denying the fourth-year cornerback his first touchdown of the season.
With that memory — and his share of friendly ribbing by teammates — fresh in his mind, Hobbs wasn’t about to let the same scenario unfold last Sunday.
After Oakland’s Justin Miller had a 91-yard kickoff return to make it 28-14, Hobbs took the ensuing kickoff and again broke through the first wave of coverage. But this time, with Sebastian Janikowski in his way, Hobbs blazed right past the Raiders’ kicker. His 95-yard touchdown reestablished New England’s three-score advantage and ended Oakland’s brief hopes of a comeback.
“No way,” said Hobbs when asked about the possibility of being tackled by the kicker again. “When you come from a couple of weeks of frustration where you almost had it, you almost had it. That’s one where you really feel it. I just said, ‘You better not get tackled by Janikowski.’ ”
Said coach Bill Belichick, “I think that’s about as clean as you could block it. There was a big hole straight to the kicker. Ellis made a good move on Janikowski. He pushed him, but not far enough to get out of bounds. The blocking was really outstanding. … It was all done just almost the way we draw it up.”
The touchdown was the culmination of a stellar season on special teams for Hobbs. He has been one of the top kick returners in the NFL, ranking third in the league and second in the AFC with an average of 28.8 yards per return. He has 44 total kick returns and is fourth in the NFL with 1,266 kickoff return yards.
Hobbs had six kickoff returns of over 40 yards entering the Oakland game before he finally broke through. His TD was the third kickoff return of his career, tying Raymond Clayborn for the most in team history. His first career return touchdown came in 2006 against Houston. His second was a memorable 108-yarder against the Jets in September 2007, when he set the NFL record for longest kickoff return.
He’s been invaluable as New England’s primary returner, and never was that illustrated better than in the Week 13 loss to the Steelers. With Hobbs on the sideline after being shaken up playing cornerback, rookie Matt Slater took over the kick return duties and mishandled the ball, fumbling it and giving the Steelers possession in the Patriots’ red zone. They never recovered from the crippling turnover and proceeded to turn the ball over four more times in the 33-10 loss.
Although big-play capability on special teams has been his specialty this season, Hobbs’ propensity for giving up the big play at his primary position has drawn the ire of most Patriots fans. But he became the team’s No.1 cover guy in just his fourth NFL season after the Patriots didn’t re-sign Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel. While the likes of Deltha O’Neal, Mike Richardson, and Jonathan Wilhite have cycled through New England’s secondary, Hobbs has remained the one constant.
Watch out for birds of prey
After 14 games, it’s pretty clear that the Patriots struggle against teams with potent passing attacks. This will prove especially problematic on Sunday when Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and Anquan Boldin come to Gillette Stadium.
The Cardinals have the second-best offense and second-best passing attack in the league. Warner is second in the NFL with 4,290 passing yards and third with 26 touchdown passes. Fitzgerald and Boldin are the league’s top receiving tandem, with a combined 177 catches, 2,238 yards, and 20 TDs.
The Patriots’ 16th-ranked pass defense figures to help determine whether they keep their playoff chances and hopes for a sixth consecutive AFC East title alive with a win.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do there,” said Belichick. “We’re down to a two-game season, so we just have to play our best football going forward in the last two weeks.”
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This week's OT cover
OT beat writersMaureen Mullen brings you Red Sox information and insights.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots.
Scott Souza is all over the Celtics.
Danny Picard is on the ice with the Bruins.
Mike McDonald takes a look at the humorous side of Boston sports