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Specialists to Spare


In Brendon Ayanbadejo and Gary Stills, the Ravens boast two of the best special teams performers in the NFL.

Each have earned Pro Bowl honors as specialists, and each annually leads whatever team they are on in special teams tackles.

But despite the Ravens' focus on the kicking and coverage games this year under head coach John Harbaugh, can Stills and Ayanbadejo exist on the same 53-man roster?

The answer will likely depend on how they perform on defense, where both players have seen added reps in training camp as backup outside linebackers.

Stills, who paced Baltimore with 26 special teams tackles and one forced fumble last season, is well aware of the situation. There are only so many jerseys to go around, and a player must be able to multi-task in the big-leagues.

"I have to be a utility guy," said the 10-year veteran. "I'm not a starter on defense, so I have to be a player that coaches can trust to play defensive end or linebacker if they need me. Playing special teams the way I do is only part of it."

Stills was rarely used from scrimmage in 2007, but he has been getting more time in training camp as a fill-in for the absent Terrell Suggs. Stills has taken advantage of the Ravens' revolving door of offensive tackles, regularly charging into the backfield.

Ayanbadejo, who is coming off his second Pro Bowl campaign with 26 special teams stops for the Chicago Bears, is playing on the third-string defense at linebacker and even intercepted quarterback Joe Flacco last week.

Whether it is the fleet, 6-foot-1, 228-pound Ayanbadejo dropping in coverage or the explosive 6-2, 250-pound Stills rushing from the edge, Harbaugh appreciates their early efforts.

"Those guys are football players. They love to play football," said the coach. "Brendon, he's the happiest guy in the world because one of his packages went in [Wednesday], and he got a pick the very first day that the package was in. That gets those guys juiced up."

"Playing linebacker? I'm a football player, that's what I do," Ayanbadejo noted. "You could tell me to block or tackle anybody, and that's what I'll do."

It's not difficult to guess where Stills and Ayanbadejo have really stood out, however.

After working with the duo, new special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg is eager to deploy both weapons in the preseason to take down returners and give the Ravens a field position advantage.

In addition, their experience will only benefit the younger Ravens as they learn how important special teams contributions are.

"We always had to game-plan for Gary, and now that I'm working with him, I've been trying to milk him of some of his secrets," explained the former Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons special teams coordinator. "The man has a lot of skill."

Of Ayanbadejo, Rosburg said, "Brendon brings not only knowledge of the system but also the skill level that he has, the technique he can demonstrate and the leadership that we expect from him. As we get down the road, all are really valuable assets."

Rosburg admitted that it would be a luxury to keep both assets for the regular season, but as rosters must be whittled down from 80 players to 53, the separation between those final few spots becomes muddy.

At this point, Harbaugh - an eight-year special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles - is happy to have such extraordinary talent in an oft-neglected aspect of the game.

He just hopes to somehow keep it.

"Those guys have been stellar, just outstanding," Harbaugh said. "They're both maybe the two best special teams players in the game right now, and we've got them both here not only to play, but to help train our young guys."

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