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Ravens continue to struggle with kickoff, punt returns

The good news for the Ravens is that they enter the bye with a 5-2 record and five of their remaining nine games at home. But the bad news is that problems on kickoff returns continue to haunt the team, which is tied with the Miami Dolphins for 23rd in the NFL with a 21.3-yard average.

The Ravens are tied with 10 other teams with zero returns of 40 yards or more, and they are tied with four teams for the most fumbles on kickoff returns with two.

The unit's troubles were punctuated Sunday when Josh Wilson was stripped of the football, and the Buffalo Bills converted the turnover into a field goal to take a 10-3 advantage with 2:01 left in the first quarter.

The issues prompted an emphatic response from coach John Harbaugh during his weekly news conference Monday.

"If you look at our special teams, I think we're playing really well — except for the return game, specifically kickoff returns," he said. "That's been tough. Putting the ball on the ground was really, really a problem. That should never have happened. Josh will tell you that. There's no reason for it to happen. It was not well-blocked. They did a nice job of covering and making some blocks miss. But at that point in time, you minimize. You get it up to the 20-yard line, and the offense goes and we'll be in good shape.

"To me, the returners are trying a little too hard to make a play," Harbaugh continued. "That's the big thing. Make a good, solid play, run the ball north and south, protect the football high and tight, and we'll get it blocked, and there'll be some plays there for us. But don't make an average play into a bad play. That's kind of the cardinal sin."

Punt returns have been absent, too. The Ravens rank 31st in average yards (5.7) and with Tom Zbikowski sidelined by a bruised heel, the team elected to use Lardarius Webb even though Harbaugh had expressed a desire to keep Webb off of special teams to avoid risking a setback to his surgically repaired right knee.

"As far as putting Lardarius back there, he's a guy that's got some talent and some ability," Harbaugh said. "He's a good returner, and we felt like he was our best option in this game. I do feel confident that we do have some guys that can do it as we go forward. Obviously, Zibby will be coming back, Chris Carr's an option back there, Donte' Stallworth will be coming back, [Derrick] Mason's been in my ear to do it. So guys want to help. Guys want to be a part of it. So we'll try to get that thing going."

Although he settled for a fair catch and did not get another shot at punt returns, Webb said he had no objection to playing special teams.

"They just know what I do," he said of the coaches. "I do a lot of things. You just don't know. … I'll play anything. I just want to win and get better."

Mason has not returned a punt since joining the organization in 2005, but he went to his first Pro Bowl in 2000 as a member of the Tennessee Titans after leading the NFL in punt return yards (662) and ranking second in average yards on kick returns (27.0).

Committed to McGahee

The decision to make running back Willis McGahee one of the team's three captains for Sunday's game was partly based on McGahee meeting the team that chose him with the 23rd overall pick in the 2003 draft.

But after McGahee did not play against the New England Patriots Oct. 17 for the first time since Nov. 30, 2008 and was the subject of trade rumors before Tuesday's trade deadline, the organization wanted to send a message about McGahee's status with the Ravens.

"I also felt like it was important to let everybody know how important he is to our football team," Harbaugh said. "He didn't play the week before as much. I take responsibility for that. He should've played the week before, and he's going to play a lot going forward. That's a little bit of a statement that way."

Disappointment over Gaither

In his first comments on the subject of Jared Gaither, Harbaugh said the inability to pinpoint the exact issue with the offensive tackle's thoracic disk injury in his back and the Ravens' need for a roster spot necessitated moving Gaither to injured reserve last weekend.

On Saturday, the team placed Gaither on injured reserve, ending his attempted comeback from a back injury that flared up on Aug. 5 and allowed him to practice just once — albeit on a limited basis — during the regular season. Moving Gaither and waiving linebacker Edgar Jones allowed the Ravens to activate free safety Ed Reed and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo from the physically-unable-to-perform list.

"I'm disappointed for Jared, and I'm disappointed for our team," Harbaugh said Monday. "It's just one of those things where we were never able to solve the back issue. He'd be the first to tell you that it's not right, and the roster spot became necessary for us to make the change. I just feel bad for Jared more than anything."

Cundiff continues stellar season

Billy Cundiff's 38-yard field with 10:54 left in overtime against the Buffalo Bills Sunday was the kicker's sixth game-winner in his career and his second with the Ravens. (His first one was a 29-yarder in a 20-17 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 29.)

"Yeah, I felt like I was in a good rhythm today, so when I got out there, I just did exactly what I did on the previous two times," said Cundiff, who went 3-for-3 Sunday and has converted 10-of-12 this season.

Cundiff also kicked four touchbacks, giving him 18 thus far. That eclipses Matt Stover's franchise record of 15 touchbacks in 1997. Cundiff trails only the Oakland Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski by two for the league lead in touchbacks.

"I like Billy," Harbaugh said. "I think he's a heck of a kicker, and obviously, that's been proven"

Bye week schedule

Several players, including quarterback Joe Flacco, center Matt Birk and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, said the bye week was coming at an appropriate time, and Harbaugh agreed.

With players like tight end Todd Heap (right shoulder stinger), free safety Zbikowski (bruised heel) and rookie wide receiver David Reed (thigh bruise) dealing with injuries, the bye week is a prime opportunity for the team's overall health to improve.

That's why the players will practice and watch film Tuesday morning before being given the rest of the week off, Harbaugh said.

"I think our guys worked extremely hard at practice, have played really hard, and have been in a bunch of physical games, and what they really needed was a chance to rest both physically and mentally. We'll have a big workout tomorrow morning, we'll watch the tape tomorrow morning, and then they'll be excused in the afternoon and we won't see them again until Monday."

The coaches, however, will spend the remainder of the week at the team's training facility, working and planning ahead.

"We don't go on vacation," Harbaugh said. "We'll be working. We're going to get ready for Miami. We've got to look at Atlanta, and we also do a self-scout process."

End zone

Harbaugh said the team has asked the league for a response on what appeared to be an erroneous spot by game officials in the second quarter. On third-and-8 from the Bills' 12-yard line, Flacco was sacked by defensive end Dwan Edwards. Although the initial ruling of a fumble was reversed after an official review, officials decided to spot the ball at the 30 even though Flacco was ruled to have been taken down at the 25. Cundiff converted a 48-yard field goal with 48 seconds left in the first half, but the attempt was five yards longer than it needed to be. "We sent that in, but I haven't heard anything back on that yet," Harbaugh said. … The players took part in a league-mandated player development program in which Jamal Lewis, Peter Boulware and Courtney Hall talked to the players about life issues and transition from football. … With 250 passing yards against the Bills, Flacco surpassed the 8,000-yard mark in his career. He owns the franchise record with 8,235 yards in just his third year. … Wide receiver Anquan Boldin became the fifth fastest in NFL history to reach the 8,000-yard milestone, compiling 8,038 on 624 catches in 102 career games. His 78.8 receiving yards per game rank first in NFL history. … Punter Sam Koch dropped three punts inside the 20 to become the Ravens' career leader in that department. His 129 kicks inside the 20 are one more than Kyle Richardson's previous franchise record. Koch leads the league this season with 19 punts inside the 20.

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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