Will the Ravens' kicking game make the difference or will special teams falter? People rarely talk about the kickers, even though their job is typically pivotal in deciding the outcome of games, especially many of the recent Super Bowls. Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker has a swagger about him, connecting on 30 of 33 field goals during the regular season after being chosen as the replacement for faltering former Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff. Tucker has brought a refreshing confidence to the Ravens' kicking game. He's already hit three game-winners in his young career, including a dramatic 47-yarder to win a double-overtime AFC divisional round playoff game over the Denver Broncos. Meanwhile, 49ers kicker David Akers has been in a funk all season and was nearly replaced by Cundiff recently. Akers had a brutal regular season, going 29 of 42 on field goals. Akers missed a field goal during the NFC title game win over the Atlanta Falcons, a 38-yard try that hit the left upright. This is clearly an edge for the Ravens. Where the Ravens' special teams needs work is in kick coverage, where they allowed two returns for touchdowns to Trindon Holliday during the Broncos game. A three-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace, inside linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has struggled in the playoffs by whiffing on several open-field tackles. He has zero special-teams tackles in the postseason after leading the Ravens with 14 special-teams tackles during the regular season. Opponents have averaged 32.5 yards on eight kickoff returns in the playoffs against Baltimore, including a 104-yard return by Holliday. Opposing returners have averaged 20.9 yards per punt return on seven returns, including Holliday's 90-yard return in Denver. Meanwhile, punter Sam Koch has outkicked his coverage repeatedly this postseason. He's averaging 45.9 yards per punt with a 36.1 net and two touchbacks. Although kick returner Jacoby Jones had three returns for touchdowns during the regular season and had a 70-yard touchdown catch against Denver to send the game into overtime, the New Orleans native hasn't had a productive postseason. He's averaging just 17.3 yards on kickoff returns after leading the NFL with a 30.7 average during the regular season. On punt returns, Jones has fared better with a 13.7 average. He's become a marked man by kickers because of his success with scores against the Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers. Kickers are angling the football away from Jones as much as possible. The Ravens could use a big play or two from Jones tonight to maximize field position or get in the end zone.
Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.