Henry Jones put the big play back in his game last Sunday, and he hopes it's there to stay.
The Buffalo Bills' veteran strong safety was all over the field in the victory over the Detroit Lions, giving fans a reminder that he is yet another potential star performer on the team's outstanding defense.
"I think that game can be a catapult for something good this year for me," Jones said. "I know the tempo that I really have to play at. I haven't been at that tempo in some time. I think it's a tempo I can maintain for the remainder of the season and I plan on doing that."
Jones will get an opportunity to prove that Sunday when the Bills face the powerhouse offense of the New England Patriots. Jones will have his hands full, whether it's in zone pass coverage against dart-throwing Drew Bledsoe, in man coverage against Pro Bowl tight end Ben Coates or helping to force the run against Curtis Martin.
Bills followers might have forgotten how good Jones can be, given the fact he missed the final 12 games of last season with a broken leg. Jones had a solid game in this year's season opener against Minnesota but had been hampered since by a sprained toe. He struggled through the injury against the New York Jets and Indianapolis and had to sit out the Kansas City game.
"It doesn't sound bad, but a sprained toe can really hinder you and keep you from exploding off it," said Bills coach Marv Levy. "The bye week was a big help to Henry, and it showed in the game."
Jones made 13 tackles, a sack, a pass breakup, a near interception and several big hits.
He helped set the tone for the defense early in the second quarter. The Lions were facing a third-and-7 situation from the Bills' 9. Lion receiver Herman Moore came across the middle for a pass at the 2. Jones battering-rammed him, forcing an incompletion and a field goal.
The key plays kept coming from Jones. He strung out a Barry Sanders sweep wide for a 1-yard gain. He forced a punt by making a sure, open-field tackle in man coverage on a receiver. He blanketed the tight end on a well-conceived roll-out to force an incompletion. He stuffed the tight end on a swing pass.
In the fourth quarter, he had what looked like an interception near the goal line. The officials ruled the ball hit the ground as Jones landed. Jones spiked the ball and raised his helmet to the top of his head, then quickly back down, realizing it is a penalty. The officials called him for unsportsmanlike conduct and the Lions scored three plays later.
Jones insists it was an interception. However, consistent with his stand-up nature, he makes no excuse for the penalty.
"In the heat of the moment, I made a selfish move by taking my helmet off or spiking the ball," he said.
After the penalty, Jones stuffed Sanders again. He had a sack the following series.
"Henry wants to play at a higher level, and that's where he played that game," said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "He played real well in the game up until the penalty. After it, he played as well or better the rest of the game."
Jones was pleased to be a physical presence out of the field. The Bills have not had a lot of crunching hits on receivers this season. However, Jones stresses that big hits are not something a player can force.
"I think the way you become physical is by having guys where they're supposed to be," Jones said. "That way no one gets isolated out there with an above-average athlete . . . where you've got to make a sure tackle to keep him from breaking a long one. When you're all in the right positions and you've got guys driving and breaking on the ball, then you can be physical."
Being physical is an issue against the Patriots since, at least part of the time, Jones figures to be matched up with Coates. The Bills also will try to bracket Coates in zone coverage.
"One thing Coates does very well is get physical with guys downfield," Jones said. "He likes to push off, he'll throw you around and the refs are not going to call it.
"Bledsoe's going to throw it in there if Coates gets any kind of separation," Jones said. "So whether it's me or a linebacker, it's a tough task. You can get physical 2-3 yards from the line of scrimmage. But once he's downfield, you really want to be on his hip, so he can't push off as the ball is coming."
The Bills have a concern on punt returns again this week. Steve Tasker appears doubtful due to a sore groin. Jeff Burris sat out Thursday's practice due to a sore hamstring. He thinks he will play, but he probably won't return punts. So there's a good chance Eric Moulds and Jones will share the duties on punt returns. . . . Bruce Smith did not practice again Thursday due to a sore knee but Levy said he was just being rested and he is not on the injury report. Ted Washington (ankle) also sat out but is expected to play.