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Kicking game boots its chances

CLEVELAND — CLEVELAND -- For the first time this season, Ravens punter Dave Zastudil had to talk about his unit's dismal play after a game. Sadly for Zastudil, he had multiple topics to cover.

The Ravens had their worst outing of the season on special teams yesterday in a 20-16 loss to the Cleveland Browns, failing to execute on three plays that helped turn the tide of the game.

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Zastudil nailed a 58-yard punt from the Ravens' 4 in the third quarter, but was helpless as Dennis Northcutt returned the ball 62 yards for a touchdown to give the Browns their winning points.

Northcutt, known for being a Ravens killer, struck with his team hot and momentum firmly on its side. Northcutt fielded the punt at the Browns' 38, cut to his left, broke through an Adalius Thomas tackle, then used a wall of players blocking down the right sideline to score the first punt returned for a touchdown against the Ravens this season.

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It capped a five-minute stretch in the quarter that yielded two Browns touchdowns and their first lead of the game.

"When he caught it, you could see the wall going on the [right] side," Zastudil said. "He made a move like he was going to the [left] sideline, everyone bit at it, and the only thing I can say is the guy made a great play."

Asked how the punt-coverage team all seemed to get sucked in to the left side of the field, rookie B.J. Ward said: "I couldn't tell you. Somebody missed a tackle, and that is always going to get you."

It ended up being all the Browns needed to win, and the capper on a special teams day in which Matt Katula botched a snap and Browns rookie Joshua Cribbs returned a kickoff 54 yards, fumbled, then watched as Sean Jones picked up the ball and went 11 more yards to the Ravens' 24.

The Browns scored their only offensive touchdowns three plays later on a 6-yard pass from Charlie Frye to Antonio Bryant on the series before the touchdown return.

"We just need to execute better," said kicker Matt Stover, who slowed Cribbs enough for Ward to cause the fumble on the return. "Players need to finish the play. There's no coaching involved in that. It was strictly players needing to make a play, and we didn't."

The returns might not have been as damaging if not for a failed chance to kick a field goal earlier in the game.

Katula, a rookie who beat out Joe Maese in training camp and had not been heard from since, suddenly found the camera on him after he sent a snap wide left on a 23-yard field-goal attempt in the second quarter.

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The Ravens would have gone up 6-0 had they made the field goal, but the Browns seemed ignited by the miss.

"That's very uncharacteristic of Matt," said Zastudil, the holder on the attempt. "He's had a great year. He just said that his hand slipped on the ball, and it faded left."

Although Katula's mistake was inexcusable, the Ravens could have offered up a few for the problems on the returns. Evan Oglesby, Dennis Haley and Jamel White all had significant time on special teams, and none of those players was with the team five weeks ago.

Injuries to Daniel Wilcox, Mike Smith and Musa Smith have hindered the coverage units.

"We had to piece a few people in there," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "But there again, they took advantage of the momentum. We didn't tackle well enough. ... [Stover] kicked off fairly well but left them short a couple of times. It puts a lot of pressure on your returns."

And, in consequence, on the team as a whole.

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"Anytime you score on special teams, your probability of winning goes up dramatically," Stover said. "As you saw, that was the difference in the game, when they scored on the punt.

"Special teams, we've done our part all year. To lose like this was disheartening because you can say that it was those three plays."

brent.jones@baltsun.com


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