The Ravens know all about the New England Patriots' Brandon Tate.
OK, maybe not fully. But after game-planning for the Cleveland Browns' Joshua Cribbs and the Denver Broncos' Eddie Royal in the last three weeks, the Ravens think they are prepared for Tate, the Patriots' dangerous kick returner, when they visit Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday.
"Any returner is a threat, but we've seen returners in guys like Cribbs and Royal," said linebacker Prescott Burgess, who ranks second on the team with four special teams tackles. "This is just another guy that we've got to play our game against and show him that we're coming on every kickoff. We want to make him nervous to run the ball against our special teams."
Tate is more than just another guy. The second-year player out of North Carolina ranks second in the league with a 33.4-yard average. He is tied with the Seattle Seahawks' Leon Washington for the NFL lead in kick return touchdowns with two.
Tate's greatest asset is his speed. His fastest time in the 40 is 4.42 seconds, and if his blockers create a lane, Tate is gone.
Linebacker and special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo has been sitting in the unit's meetings, and he said the key is forcing Tate to hesitate and become tentative before he can accelerate.
"He's a guy that you definitely want to stay in front of," said Ayanbadejo, who will not play Sunday because he is still on the team's physically-unable-to-perform list. "If anything, you want to make him run east and west, and you want to make him chop his feet because his speed is phenomenal. So you want to stay in front of him, you don't want to allow any lanes or any alleys. You just want to block everything up and get him running sideways."
Last season was New England's first without a kick return for a touchdown since 2005. But Tate is the first Patriot to return two kicks for touchdowns in one season since Kevin Faulk in 2002, and Tate is one shy of tying Raymond Clayborn's 1977 record for the most kick returns for touchdowns in a season.
"Brandon showed that ability in college, to return kicks and be a player in the open field," New England coach Bill Belichick said during a conference call with Baltimore media this week. "He's worked hard. He was banged up a little bit last year, but he's had a real good offseason. He's got good vision, good running skills. He's aggressive. Those are the things you look for in a returner, a guy who can handle the ball and is an aggressive runner that can make plays and make space in the open field and get some yards on his own and use the blocking that he has and make a little more of it when he gets those opportunities in space. Brandon's done a good job of that for us."
One weapon in the Ravens' arsenal is kicker Billy Cundiff, who is tied with the Indianapolis Colts' Pat McAfee for the league lead with 11 touchbacks. Cundiff has the ability to pin Tate deep in the end zone or directionally kick the ball away from Tate or force him to catch it near the sidelines.
"Billy has been a factor all year long with his kickoffs, even the kickoffs that are returned," special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. "Typically, they have enough hang time and distance on them where it gives our guys a chance to get off blocks, so that's been a real positive. His strength in the kickoff game is going to be something that we're going to really need Sunday against this fine unit."