Ravens on special mission


Winning in two of the three phases in football - offense, defense and special teams - usually adds up to victory. Last season, the Ravens' defense came through, but the other two components had room for improvement.

Off-season additions have bolstered the offense. The third phase, the special teams, should also be stronger, with four veterans anchoring the squad.

Bennie Thompson, Billy Davis, O.J. Brigance and Dennis Stallings have reputations as special teams standouts and have a goal of making their unit as dominant as the defense this year.

"The key thing for a good special teams player is a lot of desire and heart," said Brigance, a former Canadian Football League player with the Baltimore Stallions who joined the Ravens after four years with the Miami Dolphins.

"Special teams is overlooked," he added, "especially if you're a starter. I've been a starter for most of my career before I came to the NFL. Special teams isn't a big part of your thinking; it's just something that goes on in between plays.

"But when I received the opportunity to go to Miami, they let me know, 'Hey, this is one of the ways you're going to make the team.' ... It's pretty obvious if you want a job you're going to do it."

Thompson, an 11-year veteran, had 24 special teams tackles last season, 11 solo. Davis, who is in his second year with the team, recorded 14 solo tackles on special teams.

"I approach [special teams] like a quarterback on offense, a linebacker or cornerback on defense," said Thompson, who has been with the Ravens since they moved to Baltimore in 1996. "I take my job very seriously and hope a lot of other guys do, too."

The Ravens will be trying to improve on last season's disappointing special teams performance. They allowed five return touchdowns and 21 yards per kickoff return.

To bolster the unit, they brought in Brigance, who has 61 career special teams tackles, and Stallings, who recorded 19 special teams tackles in 1998 before being injured most of last season."[Brigance and Stallings] are proven special teams players that have been very productive on previous teams," said Ravens special teams coach Russ Purnell, who coached Stallings with the Tennessee Titans.

"Dennis is a tough guy - mentally and physically, he's tough. He's very focused on his job. O.J. has done it for years down in Miami. Every time we put on the Miami tape, he kind of shows on their special teams. ... Those are the kind of guys that can help us elevate our level of play."

Brigance and Stallings, both linebackers, may be going head-to-head for a roster spot, since it could be difficult for the team to keep two extra linebackers for the sake of special teams.

"What we've done by bringing in the guys that we have is increase the level of competition for our backup spots," said Jack Del Rio, linebackers coach. "I think they have a chance to be more than just special teams guys. They're playing well. It's really good, heated competition."

Del Rio added that the team may carry seven linebackers, but can count on keeping six. Ultimately, the decision is in the hands of coach Brian Billick.

"Some guys' contributions are going to be more on special teams, some more on the offensive or defensive side of the ball," Purnell said. "Both factor in when you make decisions on the roster. How much could he do on offense and defense, and how much could he do on special teams for us? It's got to be a blend."

Brigance and Stallings are on every special teams unit. They usually play on the line as blockers or rushers. Though Thompson plays safety, he fills a similar role on special teams; he is used as an inside blocker on punt coverage and directs traffic in the backfield.

Davis, a receiver, is the outside gunner on punt coverage. His size and strength separate him from other outside punt coverage players. He said he uses his experience on punt coverage to improve his offense when he is challenged by a cornerback's bump coverage. He figures if he can beat double teams on punt coverage, then he can beat single coverage as a receiver.

Special teams can set the tone and change the complexion of a game. Whether it's starting the game with a big hit on the kickoff or returning a punt into an opponent's territory, it can translate into good field position for the offense or defense.

"It's like 11 guys going out there competing for the same prize. You can go out there and blow somebody up," Davis said.

Purnell calls it the RH factor - run and hit - while Stallings relates it to something primitive.

"I just love to hunt. I can't even explain it anymore. Just love to hunt," he said.

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