Defense and special teams took the Ravens to the top of the NFL last year, and while the high-profile defense claims it is ready to dominate again, can the special teams change the course of games like it did last postseason?
"I think so," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose team visits the Miami Dolphins in a wild-card playoff game tomorrow. "[Return man] Jermaine [Lewis] was huge for us last year going into the playoffs and the way that he positioned us. And there is no reason to think he can't have that impact again. When you play good defense and special teams the way we did last year, you can end up in a Super Bowl. And these guys understand that."
There is more turmoil, however, surrounding the special teams heading into this playoff run after the Ravens botched a punt attempt in each of the past two games.
Long snapper Dale Hellestrae, who replaced rookie Joe Maese four days before the Ravens' win Monday night over the Minnesota Vikings, has worked hard all week to clear up the problems he and punter Kyle Richardson had in the first half of that game.
Hellestrae had three bad snaps, one of which could not be handled by Richardson and gave Minnesota the ball at the Ravens' 10. The week before, Maese failed to stop Tampa Bay's Todd Yoder, who had a clean block of a Richardson punt.
Maese ended up on injured reserved with torn ligaments in his knee, and the Ravens signed Hellestrae, whose 17 years of experience lighten the coaches' concern of more miscues tomorrow.
"The problems we had with the inaccurate snaps last week were somewhat of an aberration," special teams coach Russ Purnell said. "Dale's been doing this years and years. He's more comfortable with the calls and timing and everything.
"His snaps this week in practice were excellent."
Now the Ravens need to get Richardson out of a funk. His punting, along with a kickoff return for a touchdown by Lewis in the Super Bowl and a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown by Anthony Mitchell in the AFC divisional game, were the special teams' highlights last season. Richardson dropped 14 punts inside the 20 in the four playoff games.
Recently, though, he shanked a punt for 10 yards against the Vikings and had a 29-yarder the week before against Tampa Bay.
"Kyle's struggled the last couple of weeks. He struggled with his rhythm and balance," Purnell said. "He's worked hard this week and tried to correct some of the things that are contributing to some of the inconsistencies he's had. Part of that is being comfortable with Dale snapping. Now he knows that ball is going to be there in that strike zone and he can focus on punting the ball.
"Kyle needs to come back and punt like he did last year in the playoffs, pinning people inside the 20 and hanging punts so our folks can get down there and cover them."
Richardson will not use the uncertainty surrounding his protection and the snaps as an excuse, preferring to forget about the problems all together.
"I'm still very confident in Dale," Richardson said. "And I think we are going to have a good game. I'm looking forward to getting out there and doing what we hope we can do.
"Coming off the last two weeks, we've dropped down [statistically], and that is not a positive thing. But I'm going to move on. For me, that was last year and this is a new season for us."
Dolphins punter Matt Turk, a seven-year veteran, will likely angle his kicks away from Lewis, who has been close on numerous occasions to scoring a touchdown this season.
Lewis finished third in the AFC in punt returns, averaging 12.4 yards, and is going to the Pro Bowl.
"I don't want to press it, but when it comes, I want to be ready for it," Lewis said. "My guys have been blocking great all year, so hopefully, playoff time we can just finish it all the way."
Such plays came last season, and the Ravens, with the same belief they have in the defense, are looking for an extraordinary performance on special teams again.
"It is reasonable to expect it, and I think everyone on our team expects it," Purnell said. "You get into the playoffs, you're playing good teams every week and you have to elevate your play. We did that last year, and we certainly expect to do that this year."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Miami Dolphins in AFC wild-card playoff
Site: Pro Player Stadium, Miami
When: Tomorrow, 4 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)
Records: Ravens 10-6, Dolphins 11-5
Line: Dolphins by 2 1/2