According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens have the best special teams in the NFL -- by far.
But the special teams unit has taken a few hits in recent weeks. Injuries to cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith have pushed Corey Graham into the starting lineup, taking one of the team’s best special teams players out of the mix. Those injuries have also led to fewer special teams snaps for Chykie Brown, who has been a pleasant surprise in his second NFL season, ranking among the team’s leaders in special teams tackles.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has also gotten starter snaps on defense due to the injury to linebacker Ray Lewis.
Unheralded special teams players such as Christian Thompson and Anthony Levine were placed on injured reserve this month, and linebacker Josh Bynes and cornerback Asa Jackson have taken on larger roles on special teams.
Despite the turnover, the Ravens continue to dominate in that phase. Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said it is because players rally around one of coach John Harbaugh’s many mantras: the more you can do.
“One of the things that we’ve talked about, and worked on since training camp even, is that during the course of the season roles change,” he said. “When situations such as Corey’s, where Corey is brought out of our coverage and now is starting at corner, then somebody else has got to go take that spot. So it may be somebody that’s already on that unit whose role changes. Or it might have been someone that wasn’t on that unit before whose role changes. So we’re always trying to develop through practice and through preparation a number of guys that can do a number of things. And this time of the year is where those things come to bear.”
That preparation is maybe why safety James Ihedigbo, who laid a monster block at the end of Jones’ punt return for a touchdown in Pittsburgh, downplayed the notion that working in the new faces is a challenge.
“It’s just guys knowing their responsibilities and being able to play as a unit,” he said. “And it’s understanding the mentality that we play with -- having that chip on our shoulders -- and going out and executing.”
And boy, have they been executing.
Jones is averaging 35.8 yards per kickoff return, which is second best in the league, and his two kickoff return touchdowns are tops in the NFL. He is tied for seventh in the NFL with an average of 11 yards per punt return.
Koch is averaging at net of 40.7 yards per punt and he has pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line 20 times. Opponents are averaging just seven yards per punt return, the fifth-lowest average in the league.
Rookie Justin Tucker has made 22 of his 24 field goal attempts, including all four from beyond 50 yards. But he has also boomed 37 touchbacks and opponents are averaging 23 yards per kickoff return on 24 returns.
Even if there are more lineup changes -- chances are injuries will prompt some -- the Ravens expect similar results.
“It’s the whole point of football. Once you’re on the field, no matter what phase it is, you want to do your best and produce,” Brown said when asked about their mantra. “That’s why you have the next man in line.”