Lardarius Webb returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown in the 24-10 win against the Cleveland Browns, marking the first punt for a score during the John Harbaugh era. How gratifying was it to see that occur?
As you mentioned, the coaches and players have been grinding away to trying to improve the return game. So is there a level of vindication for you personally?
We're all happy together. The most gratifying thing is it helped us win. When you get into a game like that and it's been back-and-forth and you're trying to put them away and we were actually able to do it at that point, that came at a very timely moment.
How difficult is it to settle on a returner whom you believe can contribute positively either on kickoffs or punts or both?
The thing we always look for on this team, we have a common expression: "the more you can do." We like players that have multiple skills. We want players on our offense and our defense and even our specialists that can do more than one thing. That builds your team. We can go get a returner — perhaps. But if that's all he can do for your team, sure, that's a valuable skill, but what else can he do for your team? Is that all he's going to be doing on Sundays? So when we look at a returner, we would like to have a returner that can do more than just be a returner. So in that regard, perhaps our expectations are higher, but we look at it from a team perspective. How can he help the entire team, not just the special teams? Now when we drafted Lardarius, we thought he was an excellent returner, and we loved him as a college returner. And we also loved him as a defensive back, and it's turned out that he's done both. So that is, from our perspective, a win-win. He's able to do all the things that we saw him doing in college, and really, those are the things that we desire from all of our players, not just our returners.
Long-time fans of this team remember when Jermaine Lewis was the one of the premier return specialists in the NFL. Have you found your Jermaine Lewis for this team?
Obviously not or else there would be one guy doing both phases. We don't have one guy doing both phases. We have shared phases here and have for some time, and it's because of the nature of our roster. Certainly, you'd love to have a breakaway threat on both sides who can do both, but we'd still like for him to do more than that. I wasn't on the Ravens at that time, but I would suspect that Jermaine was able to do something as a receiver, and that's the point. You want to have a guy that can capture both return jobs, but also help your offense or defense or whatever phase he's used in. My experience is that those are the most valuable players.
When you've settled on a returner for either kicks or punts and he is a starter on either offense or defense, how concerned are you about putting that player at risk of getting injured?
I'm concerned for all the players. I'm not just concerned for the returners. You've got starters playing on the punt team, you've got starters playing on the kickoff return team. So it's not just the returners. I'm concerned for the starting defensive tackles. I have concern for all players. Just being a returner, are you more susceptible to injury? Well, I haven't seen any statistics that bear that out. Maybe it's true, maybe it's not. But we don't look at it that way. We don't look at it and think we don't want to use this player because he's too valuable somewhere else. Now, there comes a point in time when you're trying to be smart about it and you look at your depth and you look at where you're at. Lardarius has been a classic example of that. When we were thinner at corner, we had less depth there and so we were less likely to use him on two phases like we were earlier in the season. So yeah, all of those things play into it, and it goes right back to the team philosophy team that have of getting as many players as we can that can do as many things as they can so that if we do suffer an injury somewhere, someone else can pick it up.
Is David Reed working his way back into possibly returning kicks this season?
Sure he is. Absolutely. He's been practicing kickoff returns since the Seattle game, and we're still working on his ball security. He's still playing as you probably witnessed on Sunday. Did a good job at gunner [Sunday]. He's playing kickoff coverage. So he's playing on special teams. He just hasn't gotten that role back. At some point, we hope to give him an opportunity to do that. When we're comfortable with his ball security and we know what's going to happen when we put him out there, then we'll pull the trigger with that.
Reed has expressed his desire to make amends for his mistakes. Has he expressed that desire to you?
David's a competitive young man. He wants to do the right things, he wants to help his team, and we want to provide him with the opportunity. When that time comes, it'll be because we're satisfied that he's resolved the ball security issue. It's something that you can improve on. It's something that you can work on and improve on. It's not like X number of days are going to pass and it'll be alright. That's not the case. We're working on it. So when he gets better at it and we're comfortable with it and he's got it figured out and he's ready to play the way we want him to play, then he'll have that opportunity.
With regards to Billy Cundiff, it seems that many — if not all — of his missed field goals this season have strayed wide right. Is that due to a mechanical issue or something else?
Every kick has its own individual life. Not every kick that has gone right has been the same kick, not every kick has had the same conditions, not every kick was the same distance. So there's a variety of different issues that go into that. If what you say is true, I wouldn't compare these kicks yesterday to the ones in St. Louis, for example. They have nothing to do with one another. But the tendency is certainly there. Everybody can see that. Without going into a lot of technicalities, yesterday was all the bad things that can happen to a kicker in Cleveland. I've seen those happen many times standing on the other sideline. Last week, Billy did everything that he could do to prepare for that same kick. We were out there with the help of our special teams groundskeeper Will Ranney, working on Field Three in the back, and we prepared it like Cleveland's field as best we could. We scratched out the grass out of certain areas that we wanted to kick from. And then on Friday, we had the perfect wind. We had a brisk left-to-right wind down on the far end, and Will took water out there and dumped water over all these spots. We were prepared to kick in some mud and with a left-to-right wind. We had a great practice. We had some of those kicks on the right hash, and we pictured ourselves in the Dog Pound. We saw the weather report, we knew which way the wind was going to go, we talked about how the wind was going to be blowing. We created this scenario and it happened in the game three times with the first two being less successful than the last one. To Billy's credit, he was the one who pushed this, and he got it going because he knew what he had to face. Now to prepare all that and do that and have one day of practice with it, you can say, "OK, we're ready for it," and we thought we were. But when you go out there and actually have to face it and go do it, a lot of times, your body goes on automatic, and says, "This is the way I usually kick." But it takes a different kick on that kind of field in that kind of wind, and we didn't execute. It's as simple as that. It sounds like it's over-thought, but it was simply not executing the way that we wanted to kick the ball. The third one, as short as it was, was exactly the way we planned it, and there's nobody more disappointed than Billy. He made a point to me and John [Harbaugh] and to all of us that he knows we're going to need those kicks down the road in bad weather conditions and on bad fields and in strong winds and we have to work the technique that it takes to do that. It's different.
Cundiff has said that he's frustrated by the misses. As a coach, how do you prevent that frustration from seeping into his kicking?
Work, really, and that's the beauty of the guys that we have here. Our guys know that the best way to overcome issues such as this is to go out and practice. That's the only way I know. You analyze the film to see what happened, you practice, you work, and you develop the skills and you develop the confidence to go out there and execute. Billy is a worker, [holder] Sam [Koch] is a worker, [long snapper] Morgan [Cox] is a worker, and that's how we're going to get through this.