This is the final installment of a three-part series in which Baltimore Sun reporter Matt Vensel examines the Ravens and how each area of the team can be improved this offseason.
Billy Cundiff's missed field goal in the closing seconds of last month's AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots was the final miscue of a subpar season for the special teams.
Cundiff, who earned a five-year, $15-million contract after making the Pro Bowl in 2010, made every kick at M&T Bank Stadium in 2011. But he missed 10 of 23 field goal attempts on the road, and the Ravens fell a game short of the Super Bowl in part because of his 32-yarder that fluttered wide left. However, there was no guarantee they would have prevailed in overtime.
There were other issues on special teams besides the place-kicking. The Ravens allowed three return touchdowns during the 2011 regular season and the coverage units were in the bottom third of the league in kickoff-return average and punt-return average. And the Ravens produced few big plays with their return game and a pair of fumbles cost them in a loss in Seattle.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh stood by his special teams coordinator, Jerry Rosburg, who will return to the team in 2012. Some may have questioned that decision, but to be fair, the Ravens relied on many rookies and inexperienced players on their coverage teams, and they endured growing pains. The hope is that the experience will pay off in 2012.
Here are three tweaks the Ravens could consider to improve on special teams next season:
1. Give Cundiff some competition
After a heartbreaking end to the season, the Ravens showed class with their support of Cundiff. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and Harbaugh stood by their kicker, who turns 32 in March. And it was refreshing to see that teammates embraced Cundiff and that none criticized him publicly.
Reading the tea leaves, it looks as if Cundiff will be with the team in training camp. The Ravens discussed hiring a sports psychologist to work with Cundiff, and though it appears they don't think it is necessary, the fact that it was a consideration suggests they haven't quit on Cundiff.
That doesn't mean his job is secure. The team will likely bring a kicker to camp to compete with him. Making him battle for his roster spot should reveal if he is mentally and emotionally ready.
"[His confidence is] going to come from within. I think his teammates have said all the right things and his coaches have said all the right things, but anyone who has been in a situation like that, the confidence needs to come from him," Ian Eagle of CBS Sports said. "You feel for him."
If Cundiff is back in Baltimore in 2012, every kick will be scrutinized by fans and media. There's no question that Cundiff -- who also had injury issues down the stretch -- can again be one of the top dozen kickers in the NFL if he puts the Patriots loss behind him. Easier said than done.
2. Build a core on special teams
The Ravens surrendered three return touchdowns (two on punts and one via kickoff), the most in the Harbaugh era. The Ravens allowed 29.2 yards per kickoff return on 36 returns, which ranked 31st in the NFL. Opponents averaged 11.9 yards per punt return, which was 24th in the league.
"Obviously the fact that we haven't taken care of the ball and we haven't covered kicks well enough has been a factor all season long," Rosburg said in December, days after Cleveland's Josh Cribbs scored on a punt return against his unit. "We will continue to address the issues."
The Ravens did, and a few weeks later, their punt coverage unit forced and recovered a critical fumble by Jacoby Jones in their AFC divisional round victory over the Houston Texans.
For most of the season, though, inexperience was a major factor with the coverage teams. The Ravens want players who are "multiple," meaning they contribute in a few ways. By keeping all eight of their 2011 draft picks (and undrafted free agent LaQuan Williams), special teams standouts such as Marcus Smith, Prescott Burgess and Tavares Gooden were jettisoned.
Going forward, the Ravens should try to build a new core, and youngsters like Emanuel Cook and Albert McClellan will be a big part of it as they get more seasoning. Retaining a couple of key veteran free agents in Brendon Ayanbadejo and Haruki Nakamura also would be beneficial.
3. Bring in a return specialist
There was a revolving door on kickoff returns this season, something that was necessitated by the struggles of David Reed. The second-year player coughed up two fumbles in a loss to the Seahawks in Week 10. Overall, the Ravens ranked ninth in the league in kickoff-returnaverage, but there were few plays where it looked as if they were close to breaking a big one.
Lardarius Webb showed promise as a punt returner — his brightest moment being a 68-yard touchdown in their Week 13 win — but it's risky business asking your top cornerback to return punts on a regular basis. He also appeared to be gassed at times which led to some fair catches.
"Our return game has not been what we've wanted it to be, and in either phase, we have high aspirations," Rosburgtold The Baltimore Sun in December.
It might be time for the Ravens to bite the bullet and bring in a return specialist, even if he is solely on special teams. As we saw with Jermaine Lewis back in the day, having an explosive returner other teams fear can change the complexion of a tight football game.
Their best bet is to mine for a gem like that in the draft. Considering how close the Ravens were in 2011, selecting a dangerous return specialist in the middle rounds would be easily justifiable.
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