The thrill of Saturday's 38-35 double-overtime win against the Denver Broncos in the AFC divisional round swept up Ravens players and coaches alike. But when the euphoria had dissipated, members of the special teams unit were left with another emotion: anger.
That's not a surprise considering that Trindon Holliday had become the first player in NFL history to return a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in a playoff game. The players who man the coverage units are aware of how fortunate they were to escape Denver with a victory.
"Everybody was upset," Ravens free safety Sean Considine recalled. "The way I look at it is, we let the team down, but fortunately, the way this team is built, we made it up in other areas, and we've had a knack for doing that all season long. Being a core special teams guy, I want to make sure that doesn't happen again."
That sentiment was shared by special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg.
"When you give up two touchdowns, that's unacceptable in a season, let alone one game, and we're all very fortunate — those of us on special teams — that the rest of the team played as well as they did to still secure the victory," he said after Thursday's practice. "It's remarkable when you listen to our guys on the sideline — not only our special teams players, but all the players — they didn't let it bother them. They kept playing. We were trying to encourage our guys that there was still a lot of football left and they could still make a play to help us win this game. And the offense and defense both stepped up big to get us to the end where we could make a field goal and have an impact on that game."
NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes said he was shocked by the coverage unit's gaffes and predicted that they did not sit well with head coach John Harbaugh, a former special teams coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles.
"This is a guy who was a special teams coach," Dukes said. "Everybody's feeling uncomfortable. You don't want to be worrying about that. You've got the offense and defense to worry about."
The Ravens insisted that fixing the mistakes in coverage is not complicated. On Holliday's 90-yard punt return in the first quarter, the coverage team pursued to the right side of the field, but Rosburg said shifting winds pushed Sam Koch's punt toward the middle, giving Holliday a hole to exploit the other side of the field.
On Holliday's 104-yard kick return to open the third quarter, a few players broke from their lane assignments, which allowed Holliday to sprint through the middle and shake off a diving tackle by Chykie Brown.
It could be argued that the coverage units are not playing with their best tacklers. Cornerback Corey Graham, who was signed in March because of his prowess on special teams, has played sparingly on that unit since being promoted as a starter before the team's Nov. 4 victory over the Cleveland Browns. Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe also has been asked to focus more on his starting duties since an Oct. 21 loss to the Houston Texans.
Jimmy Smith and Josh Bynes have replaced Graham and Ellerbe on coverage and have been decent, but Graham and Ellerbe have been playing special teams for a longer time. Still, running back Anthony Allen said the onus is on the current players to make plays.
"It affects it a little bit, but I think we do a great job in practice of simulating guys going down and other guys being able to step up and keeping our chemistry," Allen said.
The Ravens have an opportunity to prove they have learned from Saturday's mistakes when they meet the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC title game. The Patriots don't have a returner like Holliday, and wide receiver Julian Edelman, who this season averaged 15.5 yards per punt return and ran one back for a touchdown, has been on injured reserve since Dec. 4.
But safety Devin McCourty, the team's regular kickoff returner, ran a kick back 104 yards for a score in an Oct. 21 win against the New York Jets, and when New England begins a drive from its 30-yard line or better, the offense has recorded a touchdown 31 times on 66 possessions this season.
"It's very important to play a great field-position game this week," Rosburg said. "So our job on special teams with our coverage teams is to give our defense as much green grass behind their backs as we possibly can because they do move the ball. And it's our jobs in the return game to try to set up our offense. So that's what we're about to do when we get there Sunday."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun