It didn't take Brendon Ayanbadejo long to conjure a one-word adjective for the play of the Ravens special teams in 2011. "Mediocre," the special teams ace and inside linebacker said last month.
That sentiment likely applied to the coverage units that looked vulnerable last season. Opponents averaged 29.2 yards per kick return last season, which ranked as the second-highest total in the NFL. The team also surrendered 11.9 yards per punt return, the ninth-highest average.
The Ravens allowed three returns for touchdowns, equaling a franchise mark set in 1998 and matched in 2002.
That's why Saturday's first practice with the players in full pads kicked off with the coverage units honing their tackling.
"We're just trying to get better," special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said at the team's training complex in Owings Mills. "We're practicing hard. If you notice, probably the first time we had shoulder pads was today, and the first drill we did was getting off a block and making the tackle. So that kind of speaks to the emphasis we're putting on it."
The organization also fortified that unit for the upcoming season by signing Ayanbadejo -- who has led or shared the lead in special teams tackles in six of his past nine seasons -- to a three-year contract and bringing in cornerback Corey Graham, who represented the Chicago Bears in the Pro Bowl last season for his special teams play, and free safety Sean Considine.
"When we acquired them, we knew and they knew that they've both done it well and done it for a long time, and they give us some established veteran presence," Rosburg said during the team's mandatory, three-day minicamp in June. "They also bring another level of team that has really been invaluable in these training sessions. These guys have been in other places and have done things in a certain way, and we have a very open culture where our guys are asking these guys questions about how they've done it and how it's worked for them. They know that these players have been successful playing special teams, and it's really been fun to be a part of that communication and that interchange."
Considine said Rosburg and head coach John Harbaugh, a former special teams coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles, made it clear during their recruitment that they wanted to help re-stock the special teams' coverage units.
"I think they thought that was an area that they needed to address in the offseason and try to improve," said Considine, who spent the first three years of his NFL career with Harbaugh in Philadelphia. "They're trying to improve on offense and defense, too, but at the same time, there were some guys that they targeted that they really thought they could bring in and help improve the special teams unit and bring in some leadership and some experienced veterans and see what difference we can make."
Considine, a 29-year-old safety who has made 28 starts in seven seasons with four teams, has compiled 93 special teams tackles. He brings a blue-collar mentality, but the key cog in the unit might be Graham. The five-year veteran led Chicago with 22 stops on special teams, earning an invitation to last season's Pro Bowl. Since Graham, who has 104 special teams tackles in his career, entered the league in 2007, the Bears have allowed a league-low 6.5 yards per punt return.
"Special teams is our life out there in Chicago," Graham said. "It was defense and special teams. We won games because of special teams. That was our mentality. We had to find a way to make some type of big play out there to try to help our team win. That's the same thing that we want to do here. Whether it's a big return or a blocked kick or creating a turnover, you have to find a way to help your team win the game. That's the way we did it in Chicago. We definitely wanted to be the best in the league, and it's no different here."
Rosburg said Graham's presence could help alleviate the pressure on Ayanbadejo, who usually faces double teams while racing downfield on kick and punt coverages. "That's important," Rosburg said. "They can't double the same guy every week."
Ayanbadejo said he welcomes the addition of Graham and Considine -- even if it means fewer tackles for him.
"You want to upgrade," Ayanbadejo said. "So we want to do everything we can to make our team as good as we can. So we addressed offense, defense and special teams and coaching. We changed the dietary plan in the cafeteria. Every little edge, every little difference we can make is going to make us 1, 2 or 3 percent better. We pride ourselves on being a really proficient team, and there's some things we can work on with special teams."
Returns weren't necessarily a vulnerability, but with Lardarius Webb emerging as a shutdown cornerback and David Reed expected to begin the preseason on the physically-unable-to-perform list because of surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee suffered against the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 24, the Ravens agreed to terms with wide receiver and return specialist Jacoby Jones and drafted cornerback Asa Jackson.
"It's just an opportunity for me to get on the field," said Jones, who has returned a kick or punt for a touchdown in three of his past four seasons. "I'm just going to do my job. Whatever they want me to do, if they want me to return kicks and punts or if they want me to block, I'll do my job and play my role."
Jackson said he understands that his best avenue to make an impression is special teams.
"That's something I'm really interested in because I know that's how I'm going to get a spot on that 53-man roster, being on special teams, being on the kickoffs, being on the punt team. And returns, if that comes, too, then that's a bonus. But I'm going to do the dirty work up front so that later down in my career I'll be able to play corner and do the returns."
While conceding that he would like to lighten the load on Webb -- who returned a punt and an interception for a touchdown while leading the defense in interceptions with five -- Rosburg said the explosive playmaker remains an option.
"Lardarius worked his way from a two-way returner to a nickel back to a starting corner to one of the top corners that you see," Rosburg said. "It's been a great progression for him, and special teams has been a part of that. It's allowed him to grow and develop, and he's been playing a lot of football for us in a lot of different ways.
"He's still a threat as a returner. With the guys we have now, his role hopefully won't be quite as large on special teams, but he's still there for us, and he's been practicing every day out there."
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