Special Teams Take Center Stage


New Ravens head coach John Harbaugh's background as a special teams coordinator has been brought to the forefront lately in Owings Mills, where the first two Organized Team Activities (OTAs) have focused on special teams.

Sure, there was Kyle Boller, Troy Smith and rookie free agent Brad Roach throwing balls to tight ends Todd Heap and Daniel Wilcox towards one end of the field (first-round draft pick Joe Flacco can join the team when Delaware's exam schedule ends May 30), and offensive linemen practiced blocking schemes on another, but the main action was marked by 11 men in fluorescent green helmet caps.

Harbaugh, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg and assistant Marwan Maalouf led the players through various kick coverages and returns for the majority of Thursday's session. The same could be said for Baltimore's inaugural OTA on May 16.

The fact that the Ravens dedicated their first two OTAs to special teams is a new concept in Baltimore, and perhaps around the league.

"From what we're told, we're the first team in the NFL to start the offseason with two full special teams practices, so I guess we're making history," said two-time Pro Bowl special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo. "Hopefully, it will pay off in the future."

Ayanbadejo, who signed with the Ravens in March from the Chicago Bears, is one that embraces the change.

The Ravens are looking to upgrade a special teams unit that finished 16th in esteemed Dallas Morning News NFL columnist Rick Gosselin's annual special teams rankings last season. Gosselin takes 22* *kicking-game categories and assigns points according to their standing in each category, a system regarded as one of the best in his field.

In 2007, Ravens' opponents' average starting field position was the 29.7-yard line, 27th-worst in the league. Through the heroic efforts of speedy returner Yamon Figurs, the Ravens did manage to reach the 29.3-yard line on their kickoffs, but even that could improve.

"It's been good work for us to get better as a team, especially with that aspect of the game," said running back Cory Ross, who also returned kicks and punts last year. "It does start with special teams. I think we do a great job with the coaches of working on specific techniques in each scenario.

"You don't normally get that chance to just work on special teams in a practice, except for a small amount of time in regular practices."

Coaches have even taken extra time away from the practice field to refine blocking and coverage techniques.

Maalouf was seen in the Ravens' fieldhouse earlier this week working with Ayanbadejo and rookie safety Tom Zbikowski, who is expected to be a major special teams contributor.

"We're going to err on the side of being over-coached instead of not coaching enough," Ayanbadejo stated. "Whenever you can get some extra work in, it's a good thing."

"And it's not just the special teams coaches out there. Every coach – from tight ends to linebackers to offensive line – is out there. I think our philosophy is that there is offense and defense, and special teams is offense and defense collectively, so everyone gets out there."

Starting with special teams shows where Harbaugh wants to lay the foundation of his team.

"In my first three years, we didn't do any special teams specifically during OTAs or minicamps," said long-snapper Matt Katula. "That all happened in training camp. It's appreciated from a guy in my position, because obviously I see how important special teams are, and I think they understand that around here." Katula Getting the Reps

For the first time since he joined the Ravens in 2005, Katula is the only one of his kind on the roster.

There are two kickers, two punters and even four quarterbacks at team headquarters for an extra leg or arm.

Katula is the lone long-snapper.

When the league decided to axe NFL Europa this year, the ceiling of an NFL offseason roster remained at 80, ruling out the crucial exemptions that allowed teams to keep more players in minicamps that didn't count against the limit.

Now, each spot is carefully allocated as injuries constantly alter the depth chart.

While he is spending more time looking upside down at punters Sam Koch and Ben Dato, or kickers Matt Stover and Piotr Czech, Katula thinks he'll be better for the extra practice.

"It's something I'm really not used to," he said. "I do think it will help by snapping a lot of balls. With my job especially, repetition is key. This can only help."

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