It was only an exhibition Saturday night at NRG Stadium. But for Cyrus Jones, it was a chance to return.
Last week, the 2016 second-round pick found himself in the vicinity of two Jacksonville Jaguars touchdowns – Cover-2 safety help or not – and could not do much to recoup the losses on special teams, fielding one punt for no gain and six kickoffs for an average of 19 yards per.
Jones played every defensive snap in the preseason opener against Jacksonville. He was also on the field for 48 percent of the special-teams snaps.
It was a lengthy sample size to sort through. Little of it reflected positively.
But the embattled cornerback had a do-over this weekend; a shot to shift attention from the long scores conceded in coverage to the role in which he fumbled away five times as a rookie.
While Jones had another 37 defensive opportunities to handle versus the Houston Texans, it was his 15 in the kicking game that stood out. And for the right reasons. There were no bobbles as he returned one kickoff from the zero to the 17, and averaged 14 yards a pop on four punts. There was far more good than bad. There was also much of the same.
As Jones vies to make a New England Patriots team that selected him 60th overall only two Aprils ago, that was vital.
That was what “tipped the scales” in the Alabama product’s favor to begin with.
“It looks like he made something out of nothing a couple of times,” head coach Bill Belichick said of Jones’ return work following New England’s 27-23 loss to Houston, via Patriots.com, “so that gave us some good field position.”
Making something out of nothing got Jones to Foxborough. It remains his best chance at staying there on a cornerback depth chart featuring Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Justin Coleman, and undrafted rookies D.J. Killings, Kenny Moore and Will Likely.
He illustrated why with 11:42 remaining in the second quarter.
Jones dodged Texans linebacker Dylan Cole at that juncture, and swung a 42-yard Shane Lechler punt 32 yards up the left sideline before being guided out of bounds.
The vision was present. So was the creativity and the acceleration. Together, those posed a problem for Houston.
With 5:14 left in the fourth, they did again as Jones returned a 49-yarder for 15 yards. He bounced left to escape the rubble that’d fallen before him. Then, he sidestepped a tackle from linebacker Avery Williams and began reversing field before a wave of Texans could crash ashore. It was daring, and it worked.
Down the right sideline No. 41 went before being caught by linebacker Brian Peters.
A run of that nature took risk. The scrambling blockers Jones maneuvered behind could have drawn holding or an illegal hit in the back. The way he tossed and turned could have ended in a shoelace stop for negative yardage.
But the fact Jones took that chance at all, given how the last year has gone for him, is as good a sign as you’ll see at this stage.
Jones’ time on the stage wasn’t done at that point in the evening, either. End over end, the ball found him once more at the two-minute warning.
And from there, the 23-year-old managed to bring the Patriots back to midfield after a 55-yard boot and a 14-yard scamper. Jones took a more traditional path to a more traditional punt this time around, splitting the lanes and galloping forward to prep the Patriots’ offense for one final drive.
It proved to be a step in the right direction, even if there may have been one misstep.
In the midst of the highlights, with just over a minute to go before halftime, Jones backtracked and made an over-the-shoulder catch at the Patriots’ own 12-yard line. Momentum had carried him the wrong way by then. He stood facing the end zone and not the gunner with a 58-yard head start. He stood three yards deeper from where he started, too.
It could have been a misread of the directional punt’s trajectory, a misread of the coverage unit, or a misread of field awareness. Perhaps it could have been the read he was coached to make.
But altogether, the second-year pro made more marks than he did a week ago. And his approach did not change, just the results did.
“I thought Cyrus did a good job in the return game, both punts and kickoffs,” Belichick, upon review, told reporters on his Sunday conference call. “He ran hard, ran aggressively, made good decisions with and without the ball.”
Jones showed he’s still not afraid to make a mistake. And because of that, he was able to make something out of nothing in Houston.