"A lot of kickers have that reputation for sitting off by themselves," Michelle Tucker says. "But Justin has never been that kind of kicker. He's in the mix."

Says Justin Tucker: "I think the best kickers think of themselves as football players who can kick."

There was nary a grumble when Harbaugh announced that the rookie had beaten out Cundiff. And from the first 46-yarder Tucker kicked through the uprights for the Ravens' first points of the season, he has made the decision look like genius.

Tucker says the technical adjustments he has made with Ravens kicking consultant Randy Brown — widening the position of his plant foot, staying over the ball longer, driving his body farther downfield on follow-through — have made him a "completely different kicker than I was in college."

Rosburg hesitates to evaluate Tucker's performance relative to the team's expectations. But when asked whether he feels calm in his gut every time the rookie lines up a big field goal, he says: "Oh, I have a lot of confidence in him. I've watched him kick a lot of balls, and there's very few balls he kicks poorly."

Crunch time

The one unknowable thing about Tucker is how he might respond to missing a game-ending, season-altering kick. Cundiff, for example, is out of the league 11 months after missing that 32-yarder against the Patriots. He was in the Pro Bowl two years ago.

Tucker, who has made 29 of 31 field-goal attempts this season, grasps that every kick is vital as he tries to establish a place among the 32 people in the world who make a great living doing what he does. The margin for error is tiny for NFL kickers, who have become so efficient as a species that an 80 percent success rate is mediocre and 70 percent leads to unemployment. But this reality seems to invigorate Tucker rather than gnaw at his guts.

"You don't instill that in a kid, that ice water," says Blevins, who regularly exchanges emails with Tucker. "Justin would not carry a big miss over to the next kick. He would be devastated. But he's not one of those guys that gets mental on you."

Tucker says that when he does miss, he puts a premium on making the next kick — a quick cube of sugar to drive the bad taste from his mouth.

That's why he rates a 39-yard kick he made in the Ravens' win at Pittsburgh the best of his career, even above the one at Texas A&M or his two NFL game-winners. Tucker had missed a 41-yarder in the second quarter, but he homed in on his technique, pushed any misgivings from the corners of his mind and made the next kick look easy. His field goal gave the Ravens the margin they needed to hold off their most bitter rivals.

"That's what's fun," he says of such moments. "If you don't want to be the kid to hit the walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, you shouldn't be playing baseball. If you don't want that opportunity as a kicker, you shouldn't be kicking the ball."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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