Special Teams Upgrades Pay Early Dividends


The Ravens were aggressive in free agency this offseason, at least as far as special teams personnel was concerned.

Through four games, it looks like Baltimore's moves have paid off.

The Ravens have improved in both of their kickoff and punt coverage units – an area where they struggled last season. They have new returners in Jacoby Jones and Deonte Thompson. And the move to keep rookie Justin Tucker has also looked good.

"I think we have a chance to be really good on special teams this year," Head Coach John Harbaugh said.

"We have good players and they're well-coached, and I'm looking forward to that. But we'll just have to see. I think that remains to be seen in all honesty. I'm hopeful that we're having this conversation in a few weeks. We're just starting. We haven't done anything that great."

Last year, the Ravens allowed the second-most average kick return yards in the NFL (29.2). They surrendered the ninth-most average punt return yards (11.9).

By this time last season, they had already allowed a 107-yard kick return for a touchdown to the New York Jets' Joe McKnight, and went on to give up a franchise-high three return touchdowns.

Entering Sunday's game in Kansas City, the Ravens are bringing one of the top special teams units in the league. The Ravens have the eighth-best kickoff coverage unit in the league, holding opponents to 20.4 yards per return. Baltimore has the 22nd-ranked punt coverage unit, allowing 11.8 yards per return.

That number was better before a 40-yard punt return by Cleveland's Travis Benjamin, who broke through the Ravens' backside containment sprinting from one sideline to the other before taking off downfield. Baltimore did, however, force and recover a fumble on an earlier punt thanks to linebacker Dannell Ellerbe's big hit on wide receiver Josh Cribbs.

"Everyone always talks about the defense and everyone knows how good the offense is," special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "But we've got a lot of Pro Bowl-caliber guys on our special teams unit – whether it's a returner, punter, kicker or coverage guys."

Baltimore added veteran cornerback Corey Graham (last year's NFC Special Teams [add] Pro Bowler), and safeties Sean Considine and James Ihedigbo to its special teams units.

Last year, the Ravens had a number of rookies on the unit. But this year it's a more experienced squad.

"I think it's critical to have veterans," Considine said. "It's not only good for the special teams unit, but it's good for the young players to be around guys who have done this for a long time."

"I've been on some really good special teams units," added Graham, who is tied with Ayanbadejo and second-year cornerback Chykie Brown with three special teams tackles so far.

"Honestly, here we probably have more talented special teams players. We just need to gel and play as a unit more."

Ayanbadejo cites offseason cohesion as the reason why the units are more consistent. In his mind, last year's unit was good 90 percent of the time and then would give up the big one. This year, there has been a focus on not doing more, but being more focused on 100-percent consistency.

They had offseason camps and training camp to find that consistency, something that wasn't an option last year due to the lockout.

"I think more than any individual player, there's been a team improvement because we had an offseason to learn how to work with each other within the system," Ayanbadejo said. "We're still improving on that, but we're better than last year and we're going to keep getting better."

At kicker, the Ravens have loved what they've seen from Tucker. He's the first Ravens kicker to hit two 50-yarders in one game and has missed just one of his nine attempts.

Tucker ranks seventh in the league in scoring (37 points). He's tied with two others, including former Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, for the fourth-most touchbacks in the league (16).

The Ravens could still improve their return game. They were at 24.9 yards per kickoff return last year and have dropped to 24.1 yards with Thompson. Baltimore has gone from 9.6 yards per punt return to 8.9 this year with Lardarius Webb and Jones.

"At times, we've shown our ability to have electrifying returns but guys are still learning how to finish," Ayanbadejo said.

"The more you play, the more you see your true colors. We feel like we're at the tip of the iceberg, that we can still be much improved."

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