Careful study propels Ravens to rapid returns

The Baltimore Sun

It took eight seconds for the Ravens' Yamon Figurs to catch the punt and race 75 yards for a touchdown Sunday. But hours of planning, practicing and scouting went into making the return work.

That's why the Ravens have been able to break big returns, whether it's Figurs, B.J. Sams or Ed Reed catching the ball.

The Ravens' commitment to special teams starts in training camp, where one of every four practices is devoted to the coverage and return games.

Unlike predecessor Gary Zauner, whose unconventional drills included volleyballs and tackling dummies, Ravens special teams coach Frank Gansz is focused solely on fundamentals.

Instead of using practice time on trickery like reverses, Gansz prepares his players by tirelessly reviewing situations: How do you adjust when the kickoff is short? What do you do when the punt is angled to the sideline?

Gansz, who was the coach in Kansas City when Dante Hall was the NFL's most dangerous returner, also knows the importance of finding the right players.

While the Ravens' scouts draw raves for their first-round success, they have benefited in the later rounds by identifying players specifically for special teams.

In recent years, Gerome Sapp (sixth round, 2003), Justin Green (fifth, 2005) and Derrick Martin (sixth, 2006) have been impact players on special teams. And Adalius Thomas (sixth, 2000) was a Pro Bowl special teams player before becoming an All-Pro linebacker.

This year, the Ravens went a step further when they used their second overall pick, in the third round, on Figurs because they rated him the top returner in the draft.

The Ravens, though, never thought they would need him this early. But when Sams went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Ravens had to use Figurs sooner than they would have liked.

It's a risk to have a rookie returning kicks because mishandling or fumbling one can lead to a loss. It's a bigger risk because the Ravens know Figurs doesn't have the best hands on the team.

Days before Figurs' first game, coach Brian Billick approached the rookie as he was fielding a kickoff in practice and asked him, "What's the difference between catching kickoffs here and the ones at Kansas State?"

Figurs replied, "Nothing."

At least for Figurs' first two games, the transition has been that seamless. His ability to step in so quickly has surprised the Ravens and, it seems, other teams as well.

The fastest man at this year's NFL scouting combine, Figurs is second in the league in punt returns (19.0-yard average) and first in kickoff returns (38.3-yard average).

But the success of the Ravens' return game isn't just based on speed. It comes from the hard work done before Figurs even touches the ball.


The Ravens have the highest punt return average in the NFL since 1997:

1. Ravens ...........10.9

2. Miami ...............10.4

3. Atlanta .............10.3

4. Chicago......... 10.2

5. New England. 10.1

SOURCE: Ravens

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