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Ravens needs their special teams to be truly ‘special’ to get over the hump | COMMENTARY

The Ravens have added some impact players over the past couple of years, including quarterback Lamar Jackson, receiver Marquise Brown and cornerback Marcus Peters. But they still have some holes to fill.

With the 2020 season about to begin, the Ravens want more game-changers on special teams.

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They don’t just need a return specialist, but coverage players as well. There are no special teams aces such as Bennie Thompson, Bart Scott or Adalius Thomas that strike fear in opponents when they are running down the field to make a tackle.

On Wednesday, Ravens special teams coach Chris Horton said that his units were good, but gave no indication that they were special.

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“I thought early on in the year, our kickoff coverage did an outstanding job,” Horton said. “We finished at the top, and due to some injuries, we ended up trailing off a little bit. I don’t see that taking a dip this year. It’s all effort, getting to the football, and it’s everything we preach. [It’s] kind of how we want to play ball. That’s the identity of our football team – our kickoff cover team. So, I thought we were pretty good there.

“Now, our punt units – we didn’t punt the ball very much. Maybe it was one game where we didn’t really cover the ball particularly well. But other than that, I thought our coverage units really played well last year. Now, do we want to get better? Yes, we always want to get better in everything we do, and that’s something that we are harping on.”

The Ravens might be the best team in the NFL, but most of the competition is on the same level in the playoffs. That’s when special teams become even more important, because winning the field-position battle or getting one big return could be the difference between going to the Super Bowl or going home.

Last year, the Ravens went home.

They didn’t get any big plays in their divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans, and not many in the regular season either. The Ravens averaged 8.2 yards per punt return and 18.3 on kickoff returns. They didn’t return one for a touchdown.

Now they are without De’Anthony Thomas, their top return specialist in 2019, who opted out for the season because of coronavirus concerns. Rookie James Proche, a sixth-round draft pick out of SMU, has been getting a lot of work in Thomas’ absence. Proche returned 17 punts for 164 yards for the Mustangs last season. He is known for having strong hands to both snag punts and passes inside the red zone.

“Proche, after the catch, he’s really quick — one step, hit it and get it, is really what I like to say,” Horton said. “This guy can catch the ball, and he can get north and south really quick, and that’s what we want to see from our punt returners. So, he’s done a good job at that.”

Unfortunately for the Ravens, Proche won’t get a real test until the season opener Sept. 13 against the Cleveland Browns. The NFL canceled all preseason games because of COVID-19.

“I’ll tell you what, it’s James’ role to win, and he has to go win it,” coach John Harbaugh said at the end of last week. “We have Willie Snead IV, and I know Willie would like to do it, too. He’s back there all the time. Marquise catches punts every day. We’ll see as we go, but I really like James. He’s a really dedicated, motivated guy. It’s tough for a rookie to do it – a rookie doing it without preseason games. Believe me, I think about that too, and that will be a challenge.

“I believe he’s up for the challenge; he’s the man for the job, but he’s going to have to show us that he’s ready to do it. I’m pretty sure that there will be some competition run at him as well, so we’ll see where that goes in the next few weeks.”

More competition arrived Wednesday when the Ravens announced the signing of Kenjon Barner, a six-year veteran who has spent time in Atlanta, Carolina, New England and Philadelphia. During his six-year career, Barner has returned 72 punts for 555 yards and one touchdown and has averaged 23.4 yards on 48 kickoff returns. It’s highly unlikely the Ravens will use Snead, Brown or even rookie Devin Duvernay unless absolutely necessary.

As far as coverage, the Ravens gave up an average of 9.5 yards per punt return and 21.5 yards per kickoff return, including a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. They blocked two kicks and recovered two fumbles, but neither were forced.

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The Ravens return four of their top tacklers from a year ago on special teams in linebackers L.J. Fort (10 tackles) and Chris Board (six) and safeties Anthony Levine Sr. (six) and Chuck Clark (five). Horton says there are some offensive players that might help as well.

“We have a lot of guys on our roster. Chris Moore [receiver] has been an outstanding gunner for us,” Horton said. “He has made a lot of plays on the outside. We put Justice Hill [running back] out there; he has made plays for us. What I’m seeing from J.K. Dobbins [rookie running back] — a guy that’s running, and he loves ball. There are a lot of guys – Nick Boyle [tight end]. Guys that we have had out there and that have played for us. The list goes on. It’s something that we preach. If you are an offensive guy, it doesn’t matter. If we put you out there, we expect you to go ahead and get the job done for us.”

The Ravens need an upgrade. They already have the best kicking game in the league with kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch, both of whom can bail out the offense. But sometimes even they aren’t enough.

A few more cover guys and a return specialist would help, especially in the playoffs, when the playing field becomes more equal.

Big plays on special teams make a big difference.

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