Ravens look for more production on kick returns

The Ravens' kick returns have ranged from adventurous to near calamitous this season, from Jalen Parmele's penalty-canceled breakout last week in Pittsburgh to Tom Zbikowski's tightrope walk along the goal line on opening night in the Meadowlands.

This isn't what special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg envisioned after his units enjoyed an outstanding preseason.

"I'm not frustrated," Rosburg said. "I am looking forward to more opportunities and looking forward to more production."

The Ravens' kickoff team ranks 24th in the NFL through four weeks. Their punt team ranks 29th. On the flip side, those meager rankings are balanced by Sunday's opponent, the Denver Broncos, who are 29th covering both kickoffs and punts. The Broncos have allowed a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, along with returns of 53 and 46 yards.

If this is the week the Ravens cash in on the return opportunities they've been missing, they would do well to follow Lardarius Webb's lead. Webb, remember, started the second half of last November's win over Denver with a 95-yard kickoff return, triggering a 30-7 avalanche.

"Lardarius ran that return like you like kick returners to run," Rosburg said. "Never stuttered his feet, kept his speed throughout the whole return."

Jalen Parmele became the team's kick returner in December after Webb tore knee ligaments, and he averaged a robust 31.4 yards per return. But he is averaging just 23 yards on 12 returns this year. On Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, former Maryland star Josh Wilson will get his first chance to return kicks for the Ravens.

The 5-foot-9 cornerback has played sparingly since a September trade with Seattle brought him to Baltimore, and was inactive last Sunday in Pittsburgh. Wilson had 10 kick returns of at least 40 yards in three years for the Seahawks, including an 89-yard touchdown.

Wilson declined to confirm he would return kicks this week, but he is eager for the chance.

"I can tell you right now, I'm ready, I know how to play football," he said. "I'm a football player. When I get the opportunity to show that, it'll be evident."

Parmele's role is uncertain, but he has had returns of 39 and 28 yards this season and lost a 41-yarder to a holding penalty against Paul Kruger in Pittsburgh. Parmele got to the Ravens' 42, but the penalty took the ball back to their 11.

"I think the opportunity we left out there last week is we busted one almost to midfield and had a holding call," Rosburg said of opportunities missed. "And that's the thing that we just cannot do. Persistence is very important in the return game because it's not always going to be clean, it's not always going to be pretty. That's why you want guys like Zibby and Jalen … to break a tackle when things aren't real clean.

"At the same time, when we do get that opportunity where it was a clean return – and that one was clean – that's where you want to go big."

Zbikowski, who is questionable for Sunday's game, had a nightmarish opener against the Jets, when he gained 5 yards on four punt returns. But he has averaged 7.5 yards since then, with long returns of 20 and 17 yards.

"I just needed to shake off the rust," said Zbikowski, who returned three punts for scores at Notre Dame. "Once I shook off the rust, my decisions have been smart, I've gotten the yards I can get. I just needed that first game."

Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda limited Zbikowksi's opportunities with five-second hang time on his kicks, including one from the end zone at game's end. Zbikowski, who starts at safety for the Ravens and plays on the kick return team as well, made his fifth fair catch of the season to set up the winning drive. If Zbikowski is out Sunday, Chris Carr could be tapped to return punts.

"If it didn't hang as much, I might have had a chance [at a return]," he said.

Edgar Jones, who helps take up some of the slack lost by the injury absence of Brendon Ayanbadejo, said he thinks the Ravens have taken advantage of some returns this season and expects more.

"I think every week we're getting better, we're working hard and we have a lot more communication in the return game," Jones said.

Ayanbadejo is on the physically-unable-to-perform list for the first six games of the season rehabilitating a quadricep tear. He thinks the Ravens need to gain some trust in the return game.

"Players have to make plays when it comes down to it," he said. "So I think it's a combination of we need to block a little bit better and there's plays where they're blocking pretty well and the returner doesn't make a big play out of it.

"More than anything, once the returner has trust in his front guys, the returner is really going to bust out and excel, like Jalen did last year, like Webby did. But you've got to build that confidence. I think we can pick it up and help the returners out and give them some confidence to get some long returns."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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