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Ravens beat: Ravens aim to improve kickoff return game

There shouldn't be any doubts that improving the Ravens' kickoff return game has become a priority.

At the start of Wednesday's practice, Ravens coach John Harbaugh stood beside each returner before the kick came. Judging by the way he was moving his hands, it appeared that Harbaugh was telling his players where to run according to the blocking up front.

Returning kickoffs has been a major weakness for the Ravens this season. Their average starting field position is at the 22.3-yard line, which ranks last in the NFL.

"We do need to get the return game going, there's no doubt about it," coach John Harbaugh said on his weekly radio show on WBAL. "We need to make better decisions. We don't need to bring the ball out of the end zone when it's 4.3 hang time. We need to run the ball north and south."

The lack of production has been a mystery to the Ravens, who had the fourth-best average starting field position (29.5-yard line) only a year ago. Seven drives have started inside the 20-yard line following kickoffs (26 percent). The Ravens' struggles are magnified by the fact that one-quarter of the NFL has scored touchdowns off kickoffs this season.

The Ravens have failed to break a long one even though they have faced two of the worst coverage teams in the NFL (Cincinnati ranks 29th and Denver is 28th). Their best kickoff return was 41 yards in Pittsburgh, but it was negated by a holding penalty on Paul Kruger at Pittsburgh.

Jalen Parmele, who averaged 31.4 yards on kickoffs last season, was replaced as the primary returner two weeks ago when he averaged 23 yards on 12 returns. Josh Wilson didn't fare much better, averaging 20 yards on three returns before injuring his hamstring on defense.

Parmele once again returned kickoffs last Sunday in New England, but that could be temporary. Harbaugh suggested rookie David Reed and Lardarius Webb could receive chances at running back kicks.

The Ravens had an opportunity to find a returner in the draft. Five of the top 7 kickoff returners in the AFC are rookies (Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, Jacksonville's Deji Karim, Tennessee's Marc Mariani, Miami's Nolan Carroll and Buffalo's C.J. Spiller).

Harbaugh said the key is finding the "right formula."

"I'm disappointed in it," Harbaugh said . "But it's not from a lack of effort. I think we've really worked really hard in practice. We're not as far off as it looks."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jamisonhensley YearPrimary returnerAvg. SFPRank2007Figurs29.39th2008Figurs24.729th2009Webb29.54th2010Parmele22.332ndA look at where the Ravens' average starting field position has ranked:

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