The Ravens scored two special teams touchdowns Monday night in Cleveland, including the dramatic game-winning field goal block and return.
You’d think they’d be popping champagne on the flight home, right? Nope.
Special Teams Coordinator Jerry Rosburg grumbled to Head Coach John Harbaugh about his kickoff units. They allowed one long return, forcing Justin Tucker to make a tackle, and missed a couple double teams on their own returns.
“He was getting me all worked up about it, and I was ticked off!” Harbaugh said. “And then I thought, ‘We did score two touchdowns. It was a pretty good night.’”
There’s no perfect way to quantify which NFL team has the best special teams unit, but anyone would have a tough case to make against the Ravens this season – and that’s nothing new around Baltimore.
The Ravens’ brilliance on special teams has become part of the brand of football under Harbaugh and Rosburg, who came along with Harbaugh to Baltimore in 2008. It’s just that it’s reaching record-book status now.
Will Hill’s 64-yard “kick-six” marked just the second time in NFL history that a game has ended with a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown to win on the game’s final play. The other time was in 1985, when the Broncos did it to the Chargers for a 30-24 victory.
The Ravens have now blocked a kick (punt, field goal or extra point) in five straight games. That hasn’t happened since the 1983 Atlanta Falcons pulled it off.
The stats tell the story of Baltimore’s special teams dominance this year.
After Kaelin Clay’s 82-yard punt return for a touchdown Monday night, the Ravens lead the league in average yards per punt return (13.7), despite using five different punt returners over the course of the season.
The Ravens are ninth in kickoff return average (25.6) despite letting go of former Pro Bowler Jacoby Jones and shuffling between four different returners.
In terms of special teams coverage, the Ravens are second in the NFL in net punting average (44.7 yards), thanks in large part to long-overlooked punter Sam Koch. Tucker leads the league in touchbacks (51), and only five kicks have even been returned against the Ravens.
But why and how are the Ravens so good on special teams?
It Starts With Harbaugh
A special teams coach throughout much of his college coaching days and for 10 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles before coming to Baltimore, Harbaugh didn’t leave that phase of the game behind when he became a head coach.
Eight seasons later, Harbaugh still sits in on special teams meetings, glasses on in the back of the room, just like he does in offensive and defensive meetings. And he doesn’t sit silent.
“He’s in there all the time,” Urban said. “He speaks up when he feels like he has something he can add, which he often does.”
Harbaugh has also built his team and practices with a focus on special teams.
The Ravens work on special teams every single practice. And, outside of a handful of key veterans, just about everybody participates in that phase, showing just how much the coaches care and create more competitive reps.
“Courtney Upshaw, for example, is on the punt team during those times,” Rosburg said. “Will Hill is in the vice on punt return. Kyle Juszczyk is doing about everything. It’s not just the special teams guys. When people think of special teams players, they’re ‘backups.’ Well, it runs throughout our roster.”
However, the plan is to get as many reps for the young players as possible since they make up most of the unit. That helps when there are injuries, which the Ravens have experienced far too often this season, that shake up the bottom of the roster.
For example, undrafted rookie wide receiver Daniel Brown was released last Friday, re-signed to the practice squad on Saturday, then brought up to the active roster on Monday hours before the game. He was on kickoff coverage on Monday Night Football.
Harbaugh preaches to young players that special teams is their avenue, not only for making the team out of training camp, but for dressing on game day.
“We believe that if you’re not a good special teams player at some point in your career, it’s pretty rare that you’re a good football player,” Harbaugh said. “Almost all of our guys have come through the ranks on special teams here, now. It’s expected.”
That message is passed on through the ranks by the players. Countless rookies have cut their teeth on special teams. The Ravens have a lineage, especially at linebacker and safety, of players coming up through that unit.
“I developed the love from watching older guys do it, like Corey Graham, Sean Considine, Brendon Ayanbadejo, James Ihedigbo, Albert McClellan,” said safety Anthony Levine, one of the leaders of the group who never played special teams in college.
“At first, I didn’t understand it. One day, I went out there to practice and it just clicked. I was like, ‘You know what? I love this [stuff]!’”
McClellan, an undrafted linebacker out of Marshall, talks to rookies as soon as they arrive about their path toward making the team. After all, special teams is how he did it back in 2011, and he has survived in the league for five seasons.
“Don’t sleep on special teams,” McClellan tells rookies. “You’ve got to take this as seriously as you take everything else. If you don’t take this seriously, your chances of making this team or any other team is slim to none. You have no choice but to know that it’s a serious phase in this organization.”
The importance of special teams is abundantly clear, but the Xs and Os and the on-field coaching points are often what lead to results.
That, in large part, comes from Rosburg. Rosburg said he doesn’t like to put any labels on himself, such as “perfectionist.” He’ll let others say what they want.
Well, his players did the talking.
“It starts with our leader, Coach Jerry Rosburg,” said linebacker Zachary Orr, an undrafted free agent from North Texas who is a poster boy of the Ravens’ program. After being one of the best special teams players last year, and continuing that this season, Orr is now growing his defensive role.
“Coach Rosburg is the best in the business for a reason,” Orr said. “It’s the attention to detail that he pays to watching film and the game plan. He gets on you about stance, like if you’re six inches this way or that way. He’s real nitpicky with the technique.”
Rookie fourth-round outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith didn’t play much special teams in college. He learned the hard way in the pros.
“My footwork and my technique, I was getting yelled at every day,” Smith said. “When Coach Rosburg gets mad at you, it makes you feel like you had the worst day of your life.”
“Jerry can be a nightmare,” McClellan said with a laugh. “We’ve got a little saying going around here: ‘Don’t be in one of Jerry’s nightmares.’ Just keep him happy, try your best, do the right thing and don’t make the same mistake and you’ll be good. But if you get into one of your nightmares, good luck.”
Now Smith said he’s glad Rosburg stayed on him. “It was for a good cause,” he said.
In Week 10, Smith got a hand on a 26-yard field goal attempt by Jacksonville kicker Jason Myers, sending it wide left. The statisticians didn’t credit Smith with a block until Rosburg argued for the change, which eventually came.
The blocks and the special teams touchdowns deserve their credit. After all, they’re so rare.
There’s scheme changes for each team, emphasizing different blocking techniques from edge rushes to bull rushes up the middle. The Ravens have found success with both strategies. There’s little tweaks and improvements in technique.
“There’s a lot of practice and reps to take just to get one touchdown or one block,” McClellan said.
“You’ve got a lot of artists out there that draw a whole lifetime and don’t get that million-dollar piece sold. Every touchdown we’ve had over the years, we get a card or something in our locker with everybody’s autograph on it. It’s a masterpiece. It’s perfection.”
It’s perfection, as long as you’re not Rosburg. On Thursday, Rosburg shared his side of the story about his flight back from Cleveland.
“I was so happy after the game,” he said. “We got on the plane, and I started watching the tape, and I saw what happened on kickoff returns – I saw what happened on kickoff coverage – and I had a hard time dealing with it. So, John just reminded me of the other successes that we had during the day. It got me through the flight.”