Special teams players generally are the most faceless of professional athletes. But they can lose their anonymity quickly when faulty kick coverage allows an opponent to score a touchdown.
Baltimore CFLs special teamers attracted the spotlight in their road victory in Toronto and the home opener against Calgary last week. First the Argonauts' Mike "Pinball" Clemons and then the Stampeders' Pee Wee Smith converted short punts by Josh Miller into touchdowns.
Smith's 58-yard return in the second quarter was especially damaging. Baltimore's defense had early success containing Doug Flutie, and the CFLs trailed 8-6 when Smith broke free and raced untouched into the end zone.
This week, special teams coach Daryl Edralin has placed more emphasis on kick coverage in preparation for Saturday's game here with the Shreveport Pirates.
"It's tough on defenders when a ball is kicked short and the defenders have to give the receiver a 5-yard cushion [a CFL rule] until he catches the ball," said Edralin.
"Ideally, you want your punter to kick the ball 40 yards or more with a 4.5 [seconds] hang time. But you can't use that [a short kick] as an excuse. We practice coverage against short kicks as well as long and high ones.
"The breakdown occurs when guys don't stay in their lanes. Calgary used a double coverage on one of our guys, and someone didn't fill the seam. But, frankly, I wouldn't trade my special team guys for anyone else in the league."
Head coach Don Matthews said he planned no changes in his special teams.
"We just need to do a better job," he said. "Coverage guys have to recognize a short kick and stop quick enough so they don't encroach on the 5-yard zone.
"Everyone has a particular lane assignment. The front seven guys run their lanes and two guys play back as safeties. We do it often enough in practice to get it right in games."
After the 42-16 loss to Calgary, Miller took the blame for Smith's touchdown return. But Miller has done an able punting job overall. His 42.9 average ranks fourth in the CFL.
"Maybe the problem was with me," said Scott Miller, who doubles as an offensive lineman and long snapper on kicking situations.
"As soon as I make my snap, I've got to get back, find the ball, and the rest of the guys read off me. We just haven't been getting into our lanes as quick as we should. We just can't afford any more breakdowns on kick coverage."
NOTES: Quarterback Tracy Ham, who left the game against Calgary in the fourth quarter after suffering a sprained ankle, was declared fit for Saturday's game after passing and running without difficulty yesterday. . . . Matthews got his first look at newcomer Robert Clark, a wide receiver from North Carolina Central who had a short stay with the Detroit Lions. "Clark has excellent credentials," Matthews said. "In just half a season with Toronto last year, he caught 50 passes. He had a deal to try out for Atlanta this season, but when that didn't pan out, he gave us a call." . . . Matthews also appears high on linebacker Ricky Andrews, who sat out last season in Saskatchewan after breaking his leg. "Ricky just needs to get in better shape," the coach said.