Entering the regular season finale, the New York Jets sit at a disappointing 4-11 record and are on track for a top-three draft pick next year. But even though the team has had plenty of issues so far this year — from inconsistent quarterback play to a shaky offensive line to a mistake-prone defense — not all has been as bad as the win-loss column indicates. One of the most encouraging developments for the Jets is the emergence of Andre Roberts.
Being on his fifth team, the journeyman has turned into the NFL’s most dangerous kick returner over the first 15 games of this season. Roberts’ contributions are not limited to one particular type of return as he is productive both when it comes to running back punts and when it comes to running back kickoffs. In fact, he is the league’s best player in both categories and as a result was voted to his first Pro Bowl two weeks ago.
As a punt returner, the 30-year old is averaging an NFL-best 14.7 yards per runback and has gained 324 yards and scored a touchdown on 22 returns. He is equally impressive as a kickoff returner: Roberts, Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded returnman of the season, is gaining 29.3 yards per runback — also the highest mark in the league — and has gained 1,115 yards on 38 attempts, all while also scoring a touchdown.
“We’re going up against the best return team in the league, so we’ll see where we are against Roberts,” New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged earlier this week. As a result of Roberts’ production in the return game, the Jets come into today’s game as the fourth best team in the NFL when it comes to starting field position: New York’s average drives starts at its own 30.8 yard line.
“It’s not just him,” Belichick continued when talking about Roberts and the Jets’ impressive return game. “I mean, obviously, they do a very good blocking. Their kickoff return scheme is good and on punt returns, they do a good job of getting them started. They do a good job blocking, he does a good job running, he’s explosive, he’s fast. He doesn’t need much space — once he hits the seam, it’s all over.”
The last time New England faced Roberts, the team was able to limit his contributions a bit. In week 12, the veteran touched the football just three times. The Patriots punted out of bounds twice and into the end zone once and surrendered one runback of just one yard. Roberts also was able to run just two of six kickoffs back, gaining a combined 52 yards in the process. Still solid production but not quite the numbers he usually posts.
New England will likely use a similar plan this week in order to limit Rodgers’ impact on the game and the field position battle. For the Patriots, the game will therefore serve as a benchmark of where they stand in their kickoff coverage success. “We’ll find out where we are this week,” Belichick said.