As Ravens reserve safety Anthony Levine sprinted down the field, his eyes locked onto Pittsburgh Steelers return man Emmanuel Sanders.
At the time, he didn't know about the positioning of the rest of the Ravens' coverage team or what kind of contact kicker Justin Tucker had made with the ball. All he knew was that Sanders had fielded a bouncing ball 7 yards deep in the end zone and had decided to bring it out.
"We were running down, and my mind says, 'I'm going to make this tackle so we would get this stop, and let's go win this game,'" Levine said. "In your wildest dreams, you never imagine that happening. It was devastating."
Sanders returned the kick to the Steelers' 37, setting up a drive that ended with Shaun Suisham kicking the game-winning, 42-yard field goal as time expired. The sequence culminated a poor day for a special teams unit that has been just as inconsistent through seven games as the Ravens' offense and defense.
When Ravens coach John Harbaugh rattled off the team's list of recent issues on Monday, he saved some of his harshest criticism for his coverage teams and pledged to "find some guys out there that want to play special teams."
Because of injuries and other roster decisions, the Ravens' special teams have featured a revolving door of players, many thrust into roles they've never occupied. Whether it's been issues with effort, experience or execution, the Ravens have yet to find the right mix to recapture their strong special teams play from last season.
"I think it's more of a chemistry thing out there with guys," said reserve safety Jeromy Miles, who was claimed off waivers from the Cincinnati Bengals after Week 3 to boost the Ravens' coverage teams. "[With] some guys getting thrown into the fire, we're just not on the same page. That's what we worked on today, getting guys extra reps and trying to get on the same page."
There certainly have been some strong performances from the group. Tucker, the second-year kicker, is 15 of 17 on field goals and has made 13 straight attempts. With Pro Bowl returner Jacoby Jones missing four games with a knee injury, Tandon Doss handled punt return duties and currently leads the NFL with a 17.8-yard average per return to go along with a touchdown.
On the other end of the spectrum, punter Sam Koch ranks 27th in the NFL in net punting average (38.0) and already has had two punts blocked after going more than three seasons without one. The coverage teams are also giving up the fifth-most yards per kickoff return (26.4) and the ninth most per punt return (9.6).
That's a significant departure from last season, when the Ravens' coverage teams, which were led by veterans Brendon Ayanbadejo and Sean Considine, were among the league's best.
"We don't have Sean, we don't have Brendon, but that's happened before in previous years," said Jerry Rosburg, the Ravens' special teams coordinator and assistant head coach. "It's my responsibility to make sure the guys that we do have are ready to play. That's why we have offseason [workouts], that's why we have preseason games. … The guys that are out there have got to play and play well. Whether they are young or old, whether they are experienced or not, they have to play well when Sunday comes."
After the special teams units struggled during the 2011 season, the Ravens addressed the group in the offseason, re-signing Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowl selection as a special teams player, and signing Considine and Corey Graham, who also made the Pro Bowl with the Chicago Bears. Later, they added veteran safety James Ihedigbo, who became a fixture on their coverage teams.
The veterans mixed with a couple of newcomers to form a formidable group, but Ayanbadejo was let go after the season, Considine wasn't re-signed, and both Graham and Ihedigbo now occupy key roles on the defense and are playing only 43 and 29 percent of the Ravens' special teams snaps, respectively.
Of the 10 players who covered Koch's free kick on the final play of the Ravens' 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, only two — reserve cornerback Chykie Brown and linebacker Albert McClellan — flanked Tucker on the final kickoff Sunday at Heinz Field.
Sunday's group consisted of three rookies (Kyle Juszczyk, Arthur Brown and John Simon), two wide receivers with limited coverage team experience (Deonte Thompson and Doss), demoted safety Michael Huff and McClellan, who hasn't practiced for much of the month because of a shoulder injury.
"Whether guys are down because of injury or some other reason, that's really not the issue," Rosburg said. "For us, the guys that are suited up and on the sideline with their helmet in their hand, those are the guys that we are going to play with."
In seven games, the Ravens have missed 21 tackles on special teams, according to Pro Football Focus. Last year, they missed 20 the entire regular season. This year, they have also already committed 15 penalties on special teams after being called for 20 last year.
Though Rosburg made no excuses, inexperience seemingly has been a factor. Brown, in his first NFL game, was beaten by Denver Broncos safety David Bruton for a blocked punt in Week 1. Koch also had a punt blocked against the Green Bay Packers after a communication error for which Levine shouldered the blame.
"There's not no, 'We have to wait for you to come along.' It's fairly new to me, but I'm not using that as an excuse," said Levine, who has served as the punt protector for the first time this season.
Through the first six games, the Ravens had overcome most of their special teams mistakes. That changed Sunday against the Steelers. On their ill-fated onside-kick attempt early in the fourth quarter, Miles jumped offside and Rosburg said the Ravens tipped off their intentions.
Sanders' key 44-yard return was also spurred by a flurry of Ravens mistakes and mishaps. Despite kicking from the 40-yard line because of a Steelers penalty, Tucker didn't get good footing on the chopped-up grass and was unable to kick it through the back of the end zone. Huff, who took the blame for the play, got out of his lane and was sealed off, leaving an open sideline. Juszczyk, Thompson and McClellan failed to get off blocks, and Miles and Simon arrived a split-second late to make a play.
"We just have to be in better position," Miles said. "That's the biggest thing. When I was in Cincinnati, you have veteran guys, [and] a lot of times, you don't have to worry about that. Now we have younger guys, and that's something we have to work on, is getting everybody on the same page, getting everybody in tune. And that's the simplest thing."