For the time being, Ravens special teams coordinator Gary Zauner is sticking with his familiar, rusty veteran.
Robert Tate, a sixth-year cornerback, was the primary kickoff returner in the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2, in place of rookie Javin Hunter. Tate should retain the role Monday night against the Denver Broncos (3-0).
Tate averaged 19.5 yards on four returns in what was his most extensive action at that position since 1999 when he and Zauner were with the Minnesota Vikings. Zauner, also the special teams coach with the Vikings, has worked with Tate the last five years.
The competition, however, is not over.
"Robert has run returns for me before and was very good at it," Zauner said. "He might be a little rusty. I don't think he was running the same way he did as a rookie. So that's something I got to figure out - if he's going to be the return guy. We're trying to find a return guy that will hit it up in there and not only give us good returns but have a threat to go all the way. Robert has that speed."
So does Hunter, who returned the final kickoff in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay, but "Javin is still a rookie," Zauner said. "Even though he had a touchdown [in preseason], he was still playing against a lot of rookies. He hit the hole and he outran everybody. There are a lot of first-year players coming in, and they are out there playing but what mistakes will they make? I just think last week, I saw him running a little tentative. I told him when he's in there, you got to run hard and fast."
It was a speech also given to members of the Ravens' punt-coverage team in the aftermath of Karl Williams' 56-yard return for a touchdown.
The first-quarter return gave Tampa Bay a 10-0 lead.
"There were a couple of guys not running at the speed they should have been," Zauner said. "We're going to probably make some mistakes as young as we are, but as the guys work together, grow together and know who is on their right and left, then we have the potential of being a pretty good unit on kickoff cover and punt cover."
Zauner estimated that three people were out of position during Williams' return. Things should get easier this week against the Broncos' Deltha O'Neal, who is off to a slow start after finishing second in the AFC in punt-return average last season.
"The Bucs had a good scheme in what they did, had a good punt returner, and give them all the credit," gunner J.R. Johnson said. "But we'll not so much forget about it, but come out and play fast and try to make plays.
"When you have a play like that, everybody has to look at, 'Can I make myself better, can I do something else?' For me, I know there was something I could have done a little differently to maybe impact the play. If you put 11 guys and everybody is thinking that, then maybe when that situation comes up again, instinct will take over and we'll make that play."
It has not been an easy transition for Zauner since taking over for Russ Purnell during the offseason. Besides the punt return for a touchdown, a field-goal try was blocked against the Bucs, and neither Tate nor punt-return man Chris McAlister (5.8 yards a return) is in the top half of the AFC in average.
Sixth-round pick Lamont Brightful, who was supposed to return punts and kickoffs, lost his jobs in the preseason and has been inactive both games. Punter Dave Zastudil, surprisingly selected in the fourth round, is second to last in the AFC with a 38.7-yard average.
The wild card could be McAlister, who, despite the signing of experienced punt returner Jeff Ogden, will remain the primary returner. "I'm going to return punts against Denver, and we'll see what happens," he said.
Zauner expects his units to excel midway through the season, especially when final decisions are made on kickoff returns.
"Right now we are mixing and matching certain things," Zauner said. "I've got certain returns for certain return guys, and eventually, you'd like to get a package for whoever your return guy is going to be. It was Javin once, now it's Tate."
NOTES: Receiver Brandon Stokley (ankle) is questionable for Monday's game. Tight end Terry Jones (hand), running back Jamal Lewis (ribs) and cornerback James Trapp (chest) are probable.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Denver Broncos
Site: Ravens Stadium
When: Monday, 9 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)
Line: Broncos by 7