Considering the firestorm of criticism that rained down on the offense and defense last week, perhaps it was appropriate that the special teams had a hand in the Ravens' 30-24 win against the New Orleans Saints Sunday.
Billy Cundiff broke a 24-24 tie with back-to-back field goals in the fourth quarter, Lardarius Webb returned a punt 26 yards to set up a touchdown, and Sam Koch and Marcus Smith collaborated to pin the Saints offense inside the 5-yard line for what would turn out to be the team's final — and fruitless — possession.
"We always want our special teams to step up every week," said Webb, who has registered a punt return of 20 or more yards in three consecutive games. "Special teams is the biggest part of the game to us. To keep improving, we have to improve on each: special teams, offense, defense, so that we can be complete. This is a great team I'm a part of, but we have to keep getting better. We have to keep putting our work in."
Cundiff said he and Koch struggled at first to get acclimated to winds of up to 12 miles per hour. But in the second half, the winds began to recede, and Cundiff converted field goals of 32 and 27 yards for the winning margin.
"For us, we always want to make a positive difference," said Cundiff, who is 21-of-24 this season on field goals and recorded his 38th touchback of the season. "We take it upon ourselves to make sure that at the end of the day, we're better than the other kicker and punter. … Once we got into a rhythm and figured the wind out, then we kind of said, 'OK, let's put those kicks behind us and go out there and make a difference.' And we felt like we were able to."
Koch dropped his 35th and 36th punts of the season inside the 20, but none may have been as critical as his boot in the fourth quarter that Smith spun back to Cary Williams, who downed it at New Orleans' 4.
"Special teams played tremendously," coach John Harbaugh said. "We pinned them down most of the second half. It was a great team victory."
Dickson gets career first
Rookie tight end Ed Dickson's first official career start also included his first touchdown.
Filling in for injured starter Todd Heap (pulled right hamstring), Dickson completed a 34-yard score when he left the line of scrimmage on a delayed release, caught a pass over the middle from quarterback Joe Flacco, and evaded three tackles to give the Ravens their first touchdown of the game with 4:43 left in the first quarter.
"I just wanted to score my first touchdown, and I had one defender in front of me," said Dickson, the team's third-round pick in April whose other catch lost a yard. "I was either going to run through him or run around him. I ran around him, and there was no way they were going to stop me then."
L. McClain's letdown
Perhaps it was appropriate that Le'Ron McClain's season-long "McClain 4 RB" campaign never said anything about him as a receiver.
The two-time Pro Bowl fullback dropped a potential touchdown pass on secondand-goal from the Saints' 5-yard line in the third quarter. A play later, Flacco was sacked, and the Ravens had to settle for Cundiff's 33-yard field goal with 2:15 left.
"The screen that I caught last week [against the Texans], that was harder than that," said McClain, who has caught 66 passes for 444 yards in his career. "But I just shook it off. It's something to get better on. Like my coach said, it's one play and it's time to put the play behind you. It's something to laugh about tonight."
Oher moves early again
Left tackle Michael Oher continues to make an impression, but in a dubious category.
Oher was flagged for moving early in the second quarter of Sunday. That's his 10th penalty of the season and his eighth false start.
"I don't know," Oher said when asked about incurring another false start. "It's just something you've got to get corrected, something you've got to focus on."
Early departure for D. Reed
Rookie David Reed suffered the first concussion of his career in the first quarter Sunday and did not return.
The team's fifth-round pick in April, Reed said he and a Saints player crashed helmets on his first and only kick return. After the game, he said he is dealing with headaches, nausea and dizziness, but said he intends to play Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
"I'm going to go out," said Reed, who set a franchise record with his 103-yard kick return for a touchdown against the Texans on Monday night. "I've got to play."
Stallworth takes a seat
The Ravens played Sunday without one of their top four wide receivers after deactivating Donte' Stallworth.
The scratch — his first as a Raven — was somewhat surprising considering that Stallworth was not an injury concern during the week and was getting a substantial number of snaps alongside T.J. Houshmandzadeh when that duo filled in for starters Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason.
"You always want to play, especially in a game like this, against my former team, the team that drafted me," Stallworth said afterward. "This was the only game I was looking forward to throughout the whole season, and not to get to play, yeah, it's disappointing, but we won the game. That's the most important thing. That was the goal from the start of the week, not whether I was playing or not."
The Ravens also deactivated defensive tackles Brandon McKinney and Lamar Divens, Heap, free safety Tom Zbikowski (back), linebacker Jason Phillips, guard Bryan Mattison and fullback Jason McKie.
Tailback Willis McGahee and McClain were active after missing a combined three practices last week due to illness. Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was active after being scratched in five of the team's last six contests.
Mason tied Heap for the franchise lead in catches, catching his 464th pass in six seasons with the Ravens. Heap has registered 464 receptions in 10 years. Mason also eclipsed the 700-yard mark for the 11th straight season. … Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson tied former linebacker Peter Boulware for the most consecutive games played by a Raven. A fourth-round pick in 2003, Johnson played in his 111th straight game. … The Ravens unveiled their all-black uniforms for Sunday's showdown against the reigning Super Bowl champion. The Ravens wore their all-black combination for the first time under Harbaugh and for the first time since Dec. 3, 2007, when they played against the New England Patriots on Monday night. The team improved to 4-2 when wearing their all-black uniforms. … New Orleans deactivated rookie running back Chris Ivory, who leads the team in rushing with 683 yards and five touchdowns but suffered a hamstring injury Dec. 12. The Saints also scratched wide receiver Courtney Roby, safety Usama Young, cornerback Patrick Robinson, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, offensive tackle Charles Brown and tight end David Thomas. … Cundiff, Mason and Johnson represented the Ravens for the coin toss.