Shortly before midnight Monday night, not long after Justin Tucker had booted three field goals in a win over the Cincinnati Bengals, 44-13, the rookie kicker received a text message from Texas head coach Mack Brown.
“Nice game,” the late-night text message read, according to Tucker. “I saw you had a bunch of touchbacks.”
Tucker, who showed Ravens fans his strong right leg with a 63-yard field goal during training camp, recorded touchbacks on six of his nine kickoffs against the Bengals. But surprisingly, kickoffs were not an area in which he excelled during his college days at Texas. In his senior season, he had just 12 touchbacks on 70 kickoffs.
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“It’s really important to me,” he said. “[Kicking field goals], that’s all good and well. But I know it’s better for whoever is playing on special teams to run a warm-up sprint as opposed to a full cover. It’s always good to rest the legs as much as you can during the course of the game. Field position is a big part of the game. You see [punter] Sam [Koch] flip the field on a punt and if we stop a dude inside 15-yard line, that’s always good.”
Tucker got off to a good start Monday night.
Cincinnati kickoff return Brandon Tate returned Tucker’s first two kickoffs, but Tucker boomed six straight touchbacks after Tate ran the second one out of the back of the end zone and only returned it to his 8-yard line. Tate’s bad decision left Bengals coach Marvin Lewis shaking his head in disgust on the sideline -- a moment captured on M&T Bank Stadium’s massive video boards.
“As soon as you get in someone’s head or you neutralize a play from the game to your advantage, you’ll take that any time,” Tucker said. “At the end of the day, it’s not about the stats. It’s about the end result. If a returner is eager to take one out and gets to the 8-yard line, it’s not going to show up as a touchback for me, but that’s awesome for our defense. You put a team in a tough position. I’ll take that any day of the week.”
Special teams aren’t particularly interesting to most fans, and if you are still reading this post about touchbacks, you are in the minority.
I asked Tucker if a fan had ever come up to him and said something like, “Sweet, touchbacks, dude.” He said it happens occasionally, which honestly, surprised me a little.
Must have been Jerry Rosburg’s cousin.
“What really gets people going about field goal kickers -- if they do get going about them -- is kicking the ball through the posts. But yeah, occasionally, and it’s usually someone who knows football,” said Tucker, a quirky, young kicker who when I approached him had been sitting cross-legged on the locker room floor watching a video on his cell phone by himself. “People involved in the game of football tend to recognized that a little more often.”
And it’s something the Ravens definitely recognize.
While deciding to go with Tucker over Billy Cundiff at the end of training camp, the coaching staff had to make sure that Tucker could also be a factor on kickoffs. Cundiff, who is now with the Washington Redskins, recorded 84 touchbacks in 2010 and 2011, more than any other kicker over that span. Last season, with the kickoffs moved up five yards, he had 44 of them on 80 kickoffs.
But Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Tucker, who isn’t as cool and calm during games as he is in the locker room, has a few different kicks in his arsenal and hinted that the Ravens will use them to their advantage.
“When you get after him, he’s all excited. He’s fired up about the next kick, and he attacks it,” Harbaugh said. “Two of those were line drive squibs -- which I’m not saying whether that was planned or not -- but he kicks it different ways. ... The balls that were the touchbacks weren’t out of the back of the end zone, but they had such good hang time, there’s no way they were going to bring them out at that point.”
And if they do, like Tate in the first quarter Monday night, the end result usually isn’t favorable for the return man.
As Tucker continues to get his footing in the NFL, the Ravens could tinker more with how they attack these kickoffs, especially if the coverage teams are better this season. Tucker is ready to try whatever is asked.
“It’s good to have a variety of tricks up your sleeve depending on the situation,” Tucker said. “When they say kick it deep, we’ll kick it deep. When the situation calls for a squib or a sky kick, that’s exactly what I’ll do.”