Early in the season, before sweater weather arrived, fans could head to the restrooms when it was time for Ravens kicker Justin Tucker to kickoff. Heck, opposing kick returners probably could have joined them.
In the first six games of the season, the second-year kicker boomed touchbacks on 25 of his 32 kickoffs, meaning the kick coverage team, which was only needed to make about one tackle a game, could have lined up in lawn chairs. Tucker had four games with at least five touchbacks, including the season opener in Denver, when warm temperatures and thin air allowed him to kick touchbacks on all six of his kickoffs.
But as the temperatures have dropped, the winds have picked up and the playing surfaces have hardened, touchbacks have been much tougher to come by for Tucker, who is eighth in the NFL with 36 touchbacks.
In Tucker’s past six games, he has booted just 11 touchbacks on 32 kickoffs. He kicked the ball through the end zone or forced the returner to take a knee just three times on 13 kickoffs the past two weeks. His touchback percentage, which was 78.1 percent in the first six games of the season, has dipped to 34.4 percent over his past six games.
“The weather has a lot to do with that. When the temperature drops, we all know the ball doesn’t carry as far,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “Chicago’s field had a lot to do with that obviously. We expect that really this time of year. It’s something we practice with our kickoff team. That’s why in preseason games we cover kicks because we have to cover kicks late in the year. We know that there’s not going to be [as many] touchbacks in December and January."
After Tucker averaged at least 70 yards per kickoff in each of his first six games, according to Pro Football Focus, he has averaged less than 70 yards per kickoff in five of his past six games. He has averaged 63.2 over the past three, and it’s not because the Ravens asked him to change his approach.
“We just try to let him kick it as far as he can and as hard as he can,” said Rosburg, also the team's assistant head coach.
Kickoffs could loom large Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. Minnesota Vikings rookie wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson leads the league with an average of 34.0 yards per kickoff and he has an NFL-best two kickoff return touchdowns, including a record-tying 109-yarder.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun