Ravens Need Special Teams Boost

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When it comes to special teams, the Ravens are not solely focused on finding a kicker.

Head coach John Harbaugh thinks the Ravens were only average is other areas last year.

In fact, the numbers back up Harbaugh's opinion.

On kickoffs, the Ravens allowed their opponents to start drives at an average of 28.7 yards, the 28th-ranked team in the NFL. A big part of that coverage unit is linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who earned his third Pro Bowl nod by totaling 30 special teams tackles and one fumble recovery last year.

But Ayanbadejo cannot make all the tackles himself, try as he might. He was primarily assisted by a very young group of players.

Behind Ayanbadejo's 30 stops, Tom Zbikowski posted 23 special teams tackles, Jameel McClain had 17 and Haruki Nakamura notched 14. All three were rookies at the time.

Harbaugh hopes that a year of development under coordinator Jerry Rosburg, along with some hands-on guidance from Ayanbadejo, will help that young special teams unit grow into a force for 2009.

"It was [Ayanbadejo] and a bunch of rookies, basically, out there," Harbaugh said Friday. "He helped show those guys how to practice. He shows them how to train. He teaches technique along with coach Rosburg. He's had to learn some stuff, too, within the system that we've installed. I think he's one of the premiere special teams players, really, ever to play in the game, and that's a good building block.

"We've got to build a young group of guys around him."

Another position the Ravens are addressing is gunner, where receiver Marcus Smith excelled in training camp.

Smith totaled three special teams tackles during the 2008 regular season and added another three in the AFC Championship against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which impressed Rosburg.

"We need to find someone else that does that job, frankly," Rosburg noted. "He was really coming into his own as a special teams player. He played the best football, special teams, of his life in the last game of the year, last year. He continued to improve all the way through last season, and I think he showed in the opening preseason game that he was picking up where he left off.

But Smith was lost for the season while making a tackle on a punt return last week against the Washington Redskins. Smith stopped the returner for no gain, but hobbled off to the sideline and was later placed on Injured Reserve with a knee injury.

"He'll be back, and I think he'll get back rolling, but it opens up an opportunity for someone else," continued Rosburg. "One man's adversity is another man's opportunity. So, we've been working some other guys out there to see if someone can fill that role."

The Ravens have been working closely with all potential gunners on the roster, a duty that requires toughness, speed and a determined attitude.

Said Rosburg: "The first thing it takes is toughness, but you've got to be able to run, and you've got to be able to tackle. And then there are nuances of skills with using your hands and reading splits and so forth that Marcus had developed. Now, someone else has got to take that role."

One bright spot is wideout Kelley Washington, who developed into a special teams standout over the last two years. During that span, Washington posted 25 special teams tackles in 24 games as a New England Patriot.

Lardarius Webb, Derrick MartinEvan Oglesby and Eron Riley are just a few of the other names that have played gunner in practice.

Whoever does fill that role – and whoever steps up next to Ayanbadejo – will have ample opportunities to shine in the next three preseason contests.

To Harbaugh, a special teams coordinator for nine years with the Philadelphia Eagles, it is certainly an important issue.

"For us to be a successful football team this year, we have to be really, really good on special teams," Harbaugh stated. "We were average at best last year, so those young guys have got to step up and play."

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