Panthers' special teams may give Ravens trouble


The litany of lowlights for the Carolina Panthers includes a defense that finished last overall, a home winless streak that goes back to Dec. 17, 2000 and now a quarterback in Rodney Peete who will make his first start in close to four years.

Yet, there is one area in which the Panthers can proudly say they are among the best.

"They pick up a lot of good special teams guys, and that gives them an edge," Ravens special teams coordinator Gary Zauner said. "When you're 1-15, you have to have an edge, right?"

Carolina's edge features All-Pro kickoff returner Steve Smith, who led the NFC with a 25.6 average as a rookie last year and scored two touchdowns, plus punter Todd Sauerbrun's league-leading 47.5 average.

Smith also averaged 10.7 yards on punts and returned one for a touchdown.

"I'm sure [Carolina first-year coach John] Fox is counting on special teams, as it typically is, to be a big factor in the outcome of the game to augment some of the questions we both have offensively and defensively," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

That's a safe assumption considering the Ravens, who will visit Carolina in the season opener on Sunday, are fairly young on their coverage teams.

Linebackers J.R. Johnson and Bart Scott, along with safety Chad Williams and Ed Reed, will be among the new faces counted on to contribute heavily on kickoff and punt teams this season.

Johnson's play is especially important as he made the Ravens primarily for his coverage ability and will be the gunner on the punt team.

"My role on this team is special teams alone," said Johnson, a 6-foot, 240-pound undrafted rookie out of Syracuse. "The coaching staff has a lot of confidence in me and my abilities. I just need to go out there and play the way I know I can play and hopefully come up with some big plays and shake the kicking game up.

"In college, I pretty much dominated every phase of special teams. As far as being out at the gunner position, I've played that for four years, and I can count the number of times on one hand I was stopped. So coming in, there was a lot of confidence."

Defensive lineman Adalius Thomas and safety Anthony Mitchell tied for the team lead with 18 special teams tackles last year. But with both players expected to play a more prominent role in the base defense and a number of players hurt, the Ravens will need Johnson, Scott and Williams to stay disciplined in their coverage assignments.

Cornerback James Trapp, one of the Ravens' best special teamers, likely will miss the game as he recovers from his torn pectoral muscle, while rookie safety Will Demps, whose special teams' play had coaches raving, is out with a dislocated elbow.

Cornerback Gary Baxter may also be limited with a hamstring injury.

"Just like any unit, if you take three guys out of your starting rotation, that will affect you," Billick said.

"The good thing is we are athletic, and we can run and we are physical. From that aspect, that is a good place to start. Now there is a certain amount of experience that comes into play. Seeing situations develop that you can react to instinctively instead of thinking too much, which you naturally have with all young players. But the fact that we can run, are aggressive and [are] physical is going to help, and you are going to need it because this is one if not the best special teams' units in the league."

The Panthers, under ex-Ravens special teams coach Scott O'Brien (1996-1998), finished in the top 10 last year in punt and kickoff return average. The Ravens, under former special teams coach Russ Purnell, were third in punt coverage, 19th in kickoffs.

"Everybody needs to be at the top of their game," Zauner said. "But I don't like to do anything extra or over-stress to where they think we should be afraid. It's not so much what they do, our philosophy is what we do. If we do things the way we are supposed to do, then they won't get those big plays."

NOTES: Demps (elbow) did not practice. ... The Ravens signed defensive tackle Nate Bolling as the last member of the practice squad. ... Although Terry Fair worked out for the team Wednesday, Billick said he was not surprised the cornerback signed with Carolina. "There were a couple of things we were concerned about, and we really didn't put an offer out there because of those concerns," he said.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Carolina Panthers in season opener for both teams

Site: Ericsson Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 2

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