The Ravens enter the bye with a 5-2 record and five of their remaining nine games at home. But problems on kickoff returns continue to haunt the team, which is tied with the Miami Dolphins for 23rd in the NFL with a 21.3-yard average.
The Ravens are tied with 10 other teams with zero returns of 40 yards or more, and they are tied with four teams for the most fumbles on kickoff returns with two.
The unit's troubles were punctuated Sunday when Josh Wilson was stripped of the football, and the Buffalo Bills converted the turnover into a field goal to take a 10-3 advantage with 2:01 left in the first quarter.
The issues prompted an emphatic response from coach John Harbaugh during his weekly session with the media Monday.
"If you look at our special teams, I think we're playing really well – except for the return game, specifically kickoff returns," he said. "That's been tough. Putting the ball on the ground was really, really a problem. That should never have happened. Josh will tell you that. There's no reason for it to happen. It was not well-blocked. They did a nice job of covering and making some blocks miss. But at that point in time, you minimize. You get it up to the 20-yard line, and the offense goes and we'll be in good shape.
"To me, the returners are trying a little too hard to make a play," Harbaugh continued. "That's the big thing. Make a good, solid play, run the ball north and south, protect the football high and tight, and we'll get it blocked, and there'll be some plays there for us. But don't make an average play into a bad play. That's kind of the cardinal sin."
Punt returns have been absent, too. The Ravens rank 31st in average yards (5.7) and with Tom Zbikowski sidelined by a bruised heel, the team elected to use Lardarius Webb even though Harbaugh had expressed a desire to keep Webb off of special teams to avoid risking a setback to his surgically-repaired right knee.
"As far as putting Lardarius back there, he's a guy that's got some talent and some ability," Harbaugh said. "He's a good returner, and we felt like he was our best option in this game. I do feel confident that we do have some guys that can do it as we go forward. Obviously, Zibby will be coming back, Chris Carr's an option back there, Donte' Stallworth will be coming back, [Derrick] Mason's been in my ear to do it. So guys want to help. Guys want to be a part of it. So we'll try to get that thing going."
Mason has not returned a punt since joining the organization in 2005, but he went to his first Pro Bowl in 2000 as a member of the Tennessee Titans after leading the NFL in punt return yards (662) and ranking second in average yards on kick returns (27.0).
*Trailing only the Oakland Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski for the league lead in touchbacks and boasting a robust 10-of-12 conversion rate on field goals thus far, Billy Cundiff would seem to have validated the coaches' decision to retain him over Shayne Graham at the end of preseason. Harbaugh didn't go that far, but he did sound pleased that Cundiff -- who has 18 touchbacks compared to Janikowski's 20 -- has performed well. "I like Billy," Harbaugh said. "I think he's a heck of a kicker, and obviously, that's been proven. He's probably leading the league in touchbacks, and I'm not sure what his field goal percentage is, but has he missed, what, one? Two, OK. He's made some big kicks for us, so he's done a great job. I think everybody can see that."
*The decision to make running back Willis McGahee one of the team's three captains for Sunday's game was based on McGahee meeting a former employer. But Harbaugh said the team also wanted to send a message about McGahee's status with the Ravens. "I also felt like it was important to let everybody know how important he is to our football team," Harbaugh said. "He didn't play the week before as much. I take responsibility for that. He should've played the week before, and he's going to play a lot going forward. That's a little bit of a statement that way."
*While the players won't return until Monday, Harbaugh said the coaches will spend the remainder of the week at the team's training facility, working and planning ahead. "We don't go on vacation," he said. "We'll be working. We're going to get ready for Miami, we've got to look at Atlanta, and we also do a self-scout process. So those three things will be something that we'll be focusing on this week. Trying to find a way to get our team better in all three phases, looking at the Miami game, and then looking at the Atlanta game, which will be a quick turnaround from Miami. But the coaches will get the weekend to get with their families a little bit."
*Harbaugh said the team has asked the league for a response on what appeared to be an erroneous spot by game officials in the second quarter. On third down-and-8 from the Bills' 12-yard line, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked by defensive end Dwan Edwards. Although the initial ruling of a fumble was reversed after an official review, officials decided to spot the ball at the 30 even though Flacco was ruled to have been taken down at the 25. Kicker Billy Cundiff converted a 48-yard field goal with 48 seconds left in the first half, but the attempt was five yards longer than it needed to be. "We sent that in, but I haven't heard anything back on that yet," Harbaugh said. "I don't know. I think it's pretty obvious though. Billy came through, and that's what counts."
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