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Pats work on kick coverage, defense late in half

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Pats work on kick coverage, defense late in half

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) It's a bad time for the New England Patriots to allow points late in halves and long kickoff returns throughout the game.

Fix that fast or the Baltimore Ravens and speedster Jacoby Jones could run them right out of the postseason.

The Patriots advanced to Sunday's AFC championship game with a 41-28 win over the Houston Texans despite giving up kickoff returns of 94 and 69 yards - the longest against them this season. They won even though they allowed 10 points in the last 1:15 of the first half and 15 points in the last 12 minutes of the game.

The Ravens moved on with a 38-35 double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos after Jones caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco with 31 seconds left in regulation.

That's the same Jones who led the NFL in average kickoff return yardage (30.7) and brought back two of them for touchdowns. Yep, the same guy who drew a defensive pass interference call at the Patriots' 7-yard line in Week 3, setting up Justin Tucker's 27-yard field goal on the final play. Baltimore (12-6) won that game, 31-30.

New England (13-4) can't afford another loss.

So coach Bill Belichick is emphasizing, as he does every week, the need to stop kickoff returners and keep teams from scoring with time running out in either half.

``We always think that the end of the half can get a little different than the rest of the game because of situational play,'' he said Tuesday. ``Also, sometimes offensively, teams change their method of attack and what they're doing and how they're doing it and that kind of thing. So you have to adapt and adjust to what they do.

``We have to do what we're doing better. It's definitely a point of emphasis and I'm sure it will be important in this game. We'll definitely work on it.''

The problem is one of poor execution rather than a lack of effort, Belichick said.

``We were trying to do the right things and we did some things that were good, but then we did some other things that weren't as good as they need to be,'' he said. ``Houston was able to take advantage of some of the things we were doing.''

The same problem of late scores surfaced in two of the Patriots four losses.

They led the Ravens 30-21 on Sept. 23 then allowed 10 points in the last five minutes. Three weeks later, they led the Seattle Seahawks 23-10 then gave up two touchdowns in the last 7 1/2 minutes and lost 24-23.

The Patriots won their next seven games before the twin troubles came together in a 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The Patriots had rallied from a 31-3 deficit to tie the game at 31 with 6:43 left in the game.

But LaMichael James returned the kickoff 62 yards, Colin Kaepernick threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on the next play and the Patriots couldn't recover.

``We face good returners every week,'' Belichick said. ``It's always a huge point of emphasis for us but it will continue to be. (You) just can't put a team in that kind of field position consistently and that's what we did (against Houston).''

Those long runbacks against the Patriots are rare. They allowed the third fewest average yards (20.5) on kickoff returns this season. But against Houston, they gave up a 35-yarder along with the 94- and 69-yard runbacks, all by Danieal Manning. Those led to 17 points.

``Overall, that's been probably as consistent as anything we've done as a football team for the entire season,'' Belichick said. ``Of course, it's disappointing. Those are plays that you don't want to happen, certainly not three of them in one game.''

But the Patriots are confident they can recover in time for the game that stands between them and a second straight Super Bowl appearance.

``It's very important,'' unusually subdued special teams captain Matthew Slater said. ``We know we need to perform better. We can't put our defense in bad situations. ... We've got to prepare for Jacoby and we know how good he is and what he's capable of.

``So I'm confident we'll have it fixed.''

How, at this late stage in the season, can the Patriots do that?

``You go back to the basics,'' Slater said. ``Go back to the fundamentals and the rules that we have as coverage players, just doing our job better and doing our assignments better. It's been a strength for us this season.''

That season is more likely to end if they keep giving up long kickoff returns and late-game points. The Patriots would prefer to finish games the way they did in last year's 23-20 win over the Ravens for the AFC championship on the same field where they'll meet Sunday.

Baltimore took the ball at its 21-yard line with 1:44 left and made it all the way to a second-and-1 at the New England 14 with 27 seconds remaining. A field goal would tie the game. But the Patriots met the challenge as Sterling Moore broke up two passes before Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.

``There's a good history of the two teams playing against each other,'' New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. ``You're going to try to analyze all that and take a look at it and see what you can come up with that will hopefully help put you in a successful situation for the weekend.''

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Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Clifton Brown and Bo Smolka are taking turns putting 25 key Ravens under the microscope leading up to veterans reporting to training camp. They’ll speculate on a best-case, worst-case scenario for at least one player every day, concluding with quarterback Joe Flacco on July 25.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Terrell Suggs, 33-year-old outside linebacker

Best-case scenario:

Suggs makes a full recovery from Achilles injury and returns as a double-digit sack artist and three-down linebacker.

Why it could happen:

Suggs knows people are wondering how much quality football he has left. It’s dangerous to write off great players too soon. Suggs would love to silence skeptics with a strong season, and if some of the young Ravens pass rushers develop, they won’t have to overwork Suggs. If he stays healthy once he comes off the PUP list, a player with Suggs’ talent and experience can still be a valuable defensive leader.

Worst-case scenario:

The Achilles injury limits what Suggs can do, and he is no longer an impact player.

Why it could happen:

It’s asking a lot of Suggs to remain a cog in the Ravens’ defense, after 106 ½ career sacks, and entering his 14th NFL season. Sooner or later, the NFL road will end for Suggs, just like it ended for his former great defensive teammates like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. It will be interesting to hear Suggs’ thoughts on his career when he meets with the media Wednesday. If 2016 is not Suggs’ last ride, the end of the journey is getting closer.

RELATED: FIVE YOUNG PASS RUSHERS TO WATCH

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Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

Five young pass rushers to watch, with Suggs and Dumervil on PUP

With Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil starting training camp on the PUP list, the Ravens’ young pass rushers have an opportunity to show what they’ve got.

It’s not surprising, or overly alarming, that Suggs (Achilles) and Dumervil (foot) aren’t ready to participate in full-team practices, which begin Thursday. The priority for them is to be ready by Week 1.

But the reality is that Suggs is 33 years old and Dumervil is 32 – closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Remember when the Ravens loaded up on pass rushers in the draft? Training camp and the preseason will shed light on which young pass rushers are ready to contribute, and which ones are not.

RELATED: RAVENS NAME SIX PLAYERS TO THE PUP LIST

Here are five young Ravens pass rushers to watch closely during training camp and the preseason:

Kamalei Correa, rookie OLB

Correa might see more time at inside linebacker as a rookie, because the Ravens are looking for a starting inside linebacker next to C. J. Mosley. However, Correa’s skills as a pass-rushing outside linebacker at Boise St. convinced the Ravens he was worthy of being a second-round pick. If Correa is getting pressure on quarterbacks, the Ravens will find consistent snaps for him.

Matt Judon, rookie DE

He led the nation in sacks last season with 20 at Grand Valley State. As a fifth-round pick, Judon is making a major leap to the NFL and he is raw. But he also has size (6-foot-3, 275 pounds) and athleticism. Judon could earn an immediate role as a situational pass rusher.

Bronson Kaufusi, rookie DE

He’s huge (6-foot-6, 285 pounds). He’s mature, already 25 years old after completing a two-year Mormon mission before attending BYU. And he’s athletic, good enough to spend one season on BYU’s basketball team before focusing on football. The Ravens’ third-round pick, Kaufusi could also earn a role as a situational pass rusher.

Victor Ochi, undrafted OLB

Ochi (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) has a body build like Dumervil – powerful with a low center of gravity. The Ravens have had at least one undrafted rookie make their roster for 12 straight years. Ochi could extend that streak. He was hoping to be the first player from Stony Brook ever drafted. Now he’s hoping to prove he should have been drafted.   

Za’Darius Smith, second-year OLB

Smith finished strong as a rookie. Of his 5 ½ sacks, 3 ½ came over the final three games. According to Smith, Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants 10 sacks from Smith this season. If Smith becomes a double-digit sack artist, the Ravens’ pass rush will take a major leap.

MORE RAVENS: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

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Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

Suggs, Smith among six Ravens named to PUP list

The Ravens announced six players placed on the physically unable to perform list Saturday - linebacker Terrell Suggs, wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman, linebacker Elvis Dumervil, running back Trent Richardson, and cornerback Jumal Rolle.

Quarterback Joe Flacco (knee), cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot), tight end Dennis Pitta (hip), and cornerback Will Davis (knee) were not placed on PUP, indicating they were ready for the team’s first full-team training camp practice Thursday.

Any player on the PUP list can be activated and return to practice at any point prior to the regular season. Once a player is placed on the regular-season PUP list, he must sit out at least the first six weeks of the regular season.

RELATED: WILL SMITH'S BODY BETRAY HIM AGAIN?

Rolle (Achilles injury) is expected to miss the entire season. Here’s the breakdown on the other five PUP list players:

Suggs – He still has not fully recovered from his season-ending Achilles injury suffered in Week 1 last September. Suggs is scheduled to meet with the media Wednesday, where further details about his progress should be revealed.

Smith Sr. – Also recovering from a season-ending Achilles injury suffered in November. Smith said he would not care if he missed the entire preseason. His priority is to be ready by Week 1.

Perriman – He suffered a knee injury during minicamp which did not require season-ending surgery. However, Perriman has still not played a preseason or regular season game since being drafted in the first round in 2015. After two knee injuries in two years, the Ravens have every reason to be cautious with Perriman until they think he is ready to return.

Dumervil – He had offseason foot surgery after playing through pain last season. Dumervil missed mandatory minicamp, but did not sound concerned about being ready for Week 1.

Richardson – His lingering hamstring issue could ruin his bid for an NFL comeback. The Ravens are deep at running back, and Richardson needs to get healthy to have any chance to win a roster spot.

MORE RAVENS: FLACCO HAS LONG ODDS FOR MVP