FOXBORO, Mass. — Matthew Slater doesn’t want what happened to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday to happen to his New England Patriots this weekend.
Andre Roberts, a journeyman wide receiver who’s suddenly emerged as the NFL’s top return man in his ninth pro season, returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and brought another back 51 yards to set up a game-tying field goal in a game the Jets lost 44-38 to Green Bay in overtime.
Slater, who’s been with the Patriots since 2008, on Wednesday called Roberts the best return man New England has seen in at least five years, comparing him to the iconic Devin Hester.
“(Jets special teams coordinator) Brant (Boyer) really calls a game aggressively,” Slater said ahead of Sunday’s season-ending matchup with the Jets at Gillette Stadium. “They want to get (Roberts) going, and I think those guys are selling out. It really reminds me of the way guys used to block for Devin Hester when he was going. These guys are selling out to try to get him going, and he’s taking that ball with no doubt in his mind, hitting (holes) where you’re like, ‘Man, is it there?’ And he’s hitting it, and it opens up.
“He’s running really hard. He’s decisive. He can fly. He’s really handled the ball well. He’s made a lot of guys miss, broken a lot of arm tackles. He’s playing as well as any returner we’ve seen in the last five, six, seven years. He’s playing out of his mind.”
Roberts, who earned Pro Bowl honors this season for the first time in his nine-year NFL career, enters Week 17 as the NFL leader in both kick return average (29.3 yards per return) and punt return average (14.7). No player has led the league in both categories since Detroit’s Mel Gray did so in 1991.
The Patriots actually did a solid job of containing Roberts during their 27-13 win over the Jets in Week 12, holding him to one return for 1 yard on four Ryan Allen punts. That performance garnered praise from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who called Allen’s punting “fabulous.”
“But we’ve got to understand,” Slater cautioned, “that this guy is a unique player, and what happened last game is not going to have much bearing on what happens this game.”
Roberts is one of this year’s unlikeliest breakout stars. After playing his college ball at The Citadel, he spent time with the Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons before joining the Jets last offseason.