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Ravens Could Shake Up Special Teams


If there was one group that Head Coach John Harbaugh seemed to come down on hardest the day after falling to the Steelers, it was special teams.

The Ravens' run woes have been well documented. Their ups and downs in run defense have been too. One unit that has slid under the radar is special teams.

But after a pair of costly mistakes in Pittsburgh – not executing a surprise onside kick and allowing a big kickoff return that set up the Steelers' game-winning field goal – Harbaugh essentially put out a want ad.

"We've got to play better on special teams," he said. "We're going to go find some guys that want to play special teams."

Harbaugh continued:

"We're not going to have guys out there letting the ball run outside of them; that's unheard of. We're not going to run a surprise onside kick and not know what we're doing. We'll go to work on that. If it means changing people out, then that's what we'll do."

The error that stands out the most is the failed onside kick with just over 13 minutes remaining. It was a bold call from Harbaugh, who reiterated on Monday that he and the Ravens coaches saw something on film that led them to believe they could pull it off against the Steelers.

"We didn't execute it at all. That's the disappointing thing," Harbaugh said.

Kicker Justin Tucker hit the ball well. It was set to barely go more than 10 yards, the required distance for the kicking team to recover.

The Ravens were banking on the Steelers' front line of four players to begin their customary run back down the field to get in position for the kick return. Three of them did. Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, however, immediately sprinted forward and clobbered Tucker at the ball.

Looking at the film, it appears strong safety Jeromy Miles, who the Ravens acquired off waivers because of his special teams talents, was supposed to block Sylvester to allow Tucker to field the kick. Miles was offsides and still didn't execute the block in time.

"I put the whole thing on my back," Miles said. "I didn't do my job."

The Ravens had five players on the other side in position to help with the recovery. Two, safety Anthony Levine and linebacker Arthur Brown, were supposed to block Steelers linebacker Vince Williams. They both whiffed.

Three other Ravens – wide receiver Tandon Doss, cornerback Chykie Brown and linebacker John Simon – appeared poised to try to grab the ball if it was loose and help with any scrum. They all overran the play.

Including Tucker, the Ravens had seven players executing the onside kick. Two Steelers won.

In the end, it wouldn't have even mattered because the Ravens were flagged for two penalties – Miles for being offsides and Tucker for illegal touching.

"We had a guy offsides, and that's the unforgiveable part of the whole thing," Harbaugh said after the game. "If you're offsides then you're not going to get it. That's the part that ticks me off more than anything."

The Ravens' special teams problems didn't end there. After Baltimore tied the game at 16 with one minute, 58 seconds remaining, it kicked off to the Steelers.

The plan, Harbaugh said on Monday, was to boot the ball deep to get a touchback. That should have been easier considering the ball was moved up five yards on the kickoff due to a Steelers penalty. But Tucker's kick was a line drive that Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders snagged on a hop.

Sanders cut to the right sideline where he had two blockers out in front. The Ravens didn't have anybody there because players got sucked inside. Veteran safety Michael Huff and wide receiver Deonte Thompson were supposed to be covering the sideline. Both got walled off by blockers.

"We've got our lanes and we should have been in our lanes," Huff said. "I'm the safety on that side, so I should have cleaned it up."

Sanders didn't take it to the end zone, as it originally appeared. He barely stepped out of bounds. But his 44-yard return set the Steelers up with good starting field position at their own 37 instead of what could have been at the 20 on a touchback.

"Our contain guy, that's just unforgiveable to let the ball get outside of you right there," Harbaugh said after the game. "There's absolutely no reason for that."

The Ravens had special teams problems before Pittsburgh. Punter Sam Koch had two shanks in Miami. Then he hit a poor punt into the end zone the next week against Green Bay when Harbaugh opted to try to pin the Packers deep instead of attempting a long field goal.

Baltimore has also had 10 special teams penalties. On punts or punt returns, they have two holdings, one illegal block and a league-high four roughness penalties. On kickoffs or kickoff returns, they're the only team in the league with a facemask penalty, and also have one hold and one offsides.

Overall, the Ravens are having trouble on special teams coverage but doing well on their returns.

They're allowing an average of 26.4 yards per kickoff return (fifth most in the NFL) and 9.6 yards per punt return (ninth most). On returns, the Ravens are averaging 25.7 yards per kickoff (eighth most) and a league-best 16.5 per punt.

The Ravens do have a number of younger players on their special teams units, including rookies Simon, Brown, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and safety Matt Elam. Some of their other regulars are Huff, Doss, McClellan, tight end Ed Dickson, linebacker Josh Bynes and former special teams Pro Bowler Corey Graham.

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