Practicing kicking on green, well-groomed fields is great and all, but it ain’t gonna cut it in Pittsburgh.
Justin Tucker notched yet another epic game-winner with a 46-yard field goal in overtime Sunday, giving the Ravens a 26-23 win over the rival Steelers. He also hit a 48-yard field goal that sent the game to OT.
But it all started in practicing on a secret field, where Tucker, long snapper Morgan Cox and holder/punter Sam Koch (The Wolfpack) turn up the difficulty level.
Heinz Field is arguably the toughest place to kick in the NFL. It has swirling winds coming off the surrounding rivers, which are even worse near the open side of the stadium. The turf is both chunky and loose causing unpredictable footing.
So when it’s time to go to Pittsburgh, the Ravens do their best to simulate Heinz Field conditions. And that means going to the secret Field 4.
There are three main practice fields at the Under Armour Performance Center, but behind the one that runs perpendicular to the other two is an open area where the Ravens’ specialists head during Pittsburgh week. Ravens reporters never knew there was a bonus field (it's where fans eat and play games during training camp).
“The grass just grows like a meadow over there,” Tucker said. “We’ll just take a bucket of water and pour it on a plant spot.”
A screenshot from Google Maps clearly shows the difference between Field 4 (circled in yellow) and the others.
Whether it’s practicing on a different field, rising to the occasion or just being really good at his job, Tucker has had astonishing success at Heinz Field. Tucker is now 25-for-26 in his career while kicking there, with 24 straight kicks made. He has booted four field goals three times in Pittsburgh during his eight-year career.
Tucker said former special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has been taking the unit back to Field 4 for as long as he’s been in Baltimore (since 2012). Even though they practice in that bad footing, Tucker still had trouble in Pittsburgh.
“Several of the kicks I had today, I wish I would have hit them a little bit better. … A couple of them, my plant [foot] kind of came out from under me,” Tucker said.
“That’s part of the reason why this is a notoriously tough place to kick. The field is [tough], especially after a game like we saw today where we saw the field is just getting trampled in the trenches, especially toward that open end today.”
Tucker said the wind was worse Sunday than usual too. Typically, the Ravens are playing primetime games at night in Heinz Field. It was only the second 1 p.m. start Tucker could remember.
“I’m not a meteorologist by any means, but I’m pretty sure that in the afternoons, if there’s a system coming through, that’s when [the wind is] most active,” Tucker said.
Tucker’s game-winning kick looked like it might hook left at first, but it faded to the right at the last second to sneak inside the upright.
It was Tucker’s 14th career game-winning field goal, but he’s not so callous to it all that he doesn’t feel the pressure of each one.
“There’s always nerves, butterflies, whatever you want to call it. I would go as far as to say that in the smallest bit of time there, terror,” Tucker said.
“But at the end of the day, none of that matters. You can be equal parts nervous, scared, confident, excited and none of it really matters. All that really matters is those 1.3 seconds between the snap, the hold and when the ball leaves my foot – just doing our jobs.
The most accurate kicker in NFL history (90.5 percent) hasn’t missed a field goal through five games this season – 10-for-10. He was also a major weapon on kickoffs, pinning the Steelers deep so many times that it affected Head Coach Mike Tomlin’s overtime strategy.
Yet, somehow, Tucker has gone to just two Pro Bowls. It’s still early in the season, but he seems on pace for another trip – and a lot more honors down the road.
“You don’t want to be good one time. You want to be consistently good to be great,” Tucker said. “Then you want to be consistently great to have a legendary career. I know that sounds pretty heavy, but that’s what I’m thinking about.”
Check out the top images from Baltimore's 26-23 overtime win at Heinz Field.