There was no shortage of opinions on why the Ravens special teams have looked so sickly throughout the preseason.
Corey Harris pointed to the annual parade of rookies, many of whom have little chance to make the final roster, who play on coverage and return units. Tyrell Peters mentioned communication problems and the challenge of learning a new system under a new position coach. Tony Vinson blamed the ills on a lack of focus and discipline.
What in the world has happened to that once-respectable group known as the Ravens special teams?
"We've made enough mistakes in three preseason games to last a season," said special teams coach Russ Purnell. "We need to get better and we need to get better this week."
As they head into their preseason finale tomorrow against the visiting New York Giants, the Ravens have much to address, starting with kickoff and punt coverages that have featured missed tackles and players wandering out of coverage lanes, resulting in too many long returns against them.
Their return game has been just as problematic. Remember Harris dropping the opening kickoff against Carolina on Saturday night, resulting in a 3-yard return to the 5? How about Chris McAlister running into Eric Metcalf as he signaled a fair catch on a punt return in the same game? The punt glanced off McAlister, resulting in a fumble the Panthers recovered.
Then, in the same game, there was that missed tackle by Vinson, turning a no-gain into a 10-yard punt return. Oh, and let's not forget the subpar kickoffs that have marred Matt Stover's preseason and could help challenger Scott Bentley beat him out for the job.
On the bright side, Stover and Bentley have been solid in the kicking game, combining to make four of five field-goal attempts.
Punter Kyle Richardson has gone above and beyond what is expected of him. In addition to averaging an impressive 45.2 yards a punt, including a net average of 39.2, Richardson has placed four punts inside the opponents' 20 and only one of his 19 attempts has resulted in a touchback.
He also saved a touchdown against Carolina after the Ravens punt coverage unit collapsed during a 32-yard return that set up a Panthers field goal.
"It's no secret. We're giving up field position to our offense and our defense," said Peters, who is trying to stick for another year as the team's sixth linebacker. "We've got to get together and work a little harder on some details. This is an important game [tomorrow] for a lot of guys."
The Ravens are counting on tomorrow to be a confidence-booster in the special teams area. Remember, this is a team that under former coach Scott O'Brien -- now with the Panthers -- led the NFL by starting its average drive at its own 31 last year. The Ravens' kickoff coverage team was sixth best in the AFC, allowing opponents to start drives on average at their own 27.
This preseason, shallow kickoffs and poor coverage have combined to give opponents an average kickoff return of 22.2 yards, while the Ravens are getting an average kickoff return of just 16.7 yards. Opponents routinely have started drives around their 35. And the Ravens punt return teams are producing an average of only 5.9 yards, while the coverage unit is yielding an average of 10.3 yards.
"Simple things get magnified on special teams, like a guy being slightly out of position or out of his [coverage] lane. Those things will kill you," said Vinson, who has glaringly missed two tackles in punt coverage during the preseason.
"I haven't been performing anywhere near where I should be. We have to get to the point where we can count on each other. When you're used to playing at a certain level and you drop off like this, it should light a fire under you. We have to accept the challenge and get back to the standard we set around here in the last couple of years."
A group of core special teams players in recent years, such as Bennie Thompson, Vinson and Peters, had a players-only meeting yesterday to stress what needs to be done against the Giants. The plan, with mostly first-team players on duty tomorrow, is to set the tone for a turnaround that will carry into the regular season.
"Some of [the problem] is attributable to people playing who aren't going to be playing once the regular season starts," Purnell said. "Some of it has just been sloppy attention to detail, sloppy coaching, sloppy execution.
"There has been a wake-up call, in my office and in the locker room. We're going to get this fixed."
Next for Ravens
Preseason opponent: New York Giants
Site: PSINet Stadium
When: Tomorrow, noon
TV/Radio: Tape delay at 1: 30 p.m. on Ch. 13/live on WJFK (1300 AM) and WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Ravens by 1 1/2 Pub Date: 9/02/99