To hear Jerry Rosburg describe it, it was just like listening to Beethoven tickle the ivories or watching Monet flick the final brushstrokes as the paint was drying on canvas.
When Jacoby Jones fielded a punt in the first quarter of last Sunday's 13-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers and weaved his way to the end zone, Rosburg, the Ravens' special teams coordinator since 2008, felt he was witnessing the making of a different kind of masterpiece.
"When you see those returns come together like they have, it's a thing of beauty — it's art," he said.
Rosburg has orchestrated three touchdown returns in the past five weeks (a fourth Sunday against the Chargers in San Diego would tie a single-season team record), all of which were scored by Jones. But the long, harmonious returns are less symphonies or impressionist paintings than they are choreographed dance routines — ones executed between chaos and high-speed collisions.
However you choose to describe the performances of the Ravens on special teams — the often underappreciated third phase of the game that they aggressively addressed in the offseason — there is no questioning the impact of their return game. Return touchdowns altered the outcome of two of their wins, and, led by Jones,their kick and punt return teams are among the league's best.
That game-changing, 63-yard punt return in Pittsburgh told the story of a rejuvenated Ravens unit.
With the Ravens trailing, 7-3, in the first quarter, Steelers punter Drew Butler boomed a punt from inside his 5-yard line. As the ball soared into the night sky, the Ravens put a "vice" on both Steelers gunners, double-teaming the one on each side. On the left sideline, defensive backs Chykie Brown and Anthony Levine manhandled their gunner, steering him into the middle of the field.
A year ago, Brown was one of a handful of young Ravens who stumbled while finding their way on special teams, especially because the lockout robbed them of a full offseason to learn its nuances.
As a result, the Ravens' struggles on special teams extended beyond the right foot of Billy Cundiff. They allowed three return touchdowns last season, and their coverage units were in the bottom third of the NFL. They scored on a punt return but otherwise produced few big returns.
"Now I think guys are realizing they can play special teams, and if they do well, they can play for a long time and make a good living for themselves," linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said.
As Brown and Levien sidetracked the gunner on the left, Jones, who is making a fine living and plenty of highlight reels as a return specialist, caught Butler's punt at the Ravens' 37-yard line.
With plenty of running room, Jones took a few quick steps diagonally toward the left pylon before jamming his left cleat into the grass and accelerating straight up the field.
"The more you are going vertically up the field, the faster you are passing everybody," Brenkus said.
Jones was about to pass 11 Steelers and a few difference-makers the Ravens signed this spring.
Making an impact
In the span of about a second and a half, Jones blew by six Steelers, but there was a reason that none were roadblocks in his path. He got key blocks downfield, including ones from a pair of newcomers, as the Ravens built a tunnel for him to sprint through.
This spring, coach John Harbaugh spoke openly about the need to get better on special teams. So the Ravens signed Jones, who doubles as their third wide receiver, to a two-year, $7 million contract. They lured cornerback Corey Graham, who was a Pro Bowl special teams player with the Chicago Bears, to Baltimore with a two-year, $3.7 million deal. They got the services of safeties Sean Considine and James Ihedigbo for a combined $1.525 million this season. And they brought back Ayanbadejo, their special teams captain from a season ago, for $3.2 million over three years.
"We kind of put our money where our mouth is this year and went out and got the top talent that was available," Ayanbadejo said.
The first and perhaps most important block on this return was laid by Considine, who raced down the field and got position on Steelers safety Ryan Mundy, allowing Jones to run behind him.
"We watch so much film, I could have told you ahead of time that I would end up blocking No. 29 for the Steelers," Considine said.
The final block was laid by Ihedigbo, who rushed the punt from the right side to force a kick to the left, then peeled back to left sideline to pick off any unblocked Steelers. He found one and put him on his back with a hit that Brenkus said might have exceeded 3,000 pounds of force.
"I'm just looking for the most dangerous guy at the end of the return," Ihedigbo said. "I don't even know what number he was, but he was the victim of that."
Jones veered to the right of Ihedigbo's spleen-shaking block at the Pittsburgh 45-yard line and split a trio of Steelers defenders while crossing the field toward the right pylon. Butler put forth a valiant effort by punter standards, but he couldn't catch Jones in a foot race to the end zone.
"[Jones] accelerated to about 20 miles per hour within two seconds," Brenkus said. "He was going between six and eight miles per hour prior to the [first] cut. Within four seconds, which was actually less than the hangtime of the punt itself, Jacoby had already beaten eight Steelers."
In large part because of Jones, the Ravens are the only team with two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season, and they average an NFL-best 29.4 yards per kickoff return. They average 10.5 yards per punt return, which ranks 11th. When not returning them for touchdowns, the special teams unit has given the offense an average starting position at their 25.5-yard line after kickoffs, third best in the NFL.
Jones, who has already run into the Ravens' record book with three return touchdowns in one season and who could finish at his first Pro Bowl (or better yet, the Super Bowl) at season's end, was quick to credit his teammates.
"All of it is the blocking," said Jones, who was also hardly touched, if at all, on his 108-yard and 105-yard kickoff returns in Week 6 and Week 10, respectively.
Jones needs three more return touchdowns in his final five games to tie Devin Hester's all-time single-season record of six total return touchdowns, set in 2007. He already has the franchise's individual record, and with one more the Ravens would tie their team record of four set in 1998.
Jones says that, right now, things are moving in slow motion whenever the ball gets kicked to him. But from afar, these returns look like a ballet of blurs slamming in each other around him. Sometimes, it takes just one defender to disrupt the rhythm of a return. Other times, one fallen defender will domino into a couple of teammates, a deviation from the script that benefited the Ravens on one return.
But when the timing is perfect and the blocking synchronized, the finished work is a beautiful thing.
"When you see the whole 11 come together in that choreographed, coordinated kind of a way, it means a lot," Harbaugh said. "That's what you work so hard for. That's your work of art."
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