Jacoby Jones stalked from side-to-side in the end zone, measuring every step while paying no attention to the players lining up in front of him. When the ball sailed off the right foot of Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano, Jones sprung forward, sensing a rare opportunity.
The anticipation, however, was short-lived. The kickoff landed about five yards in front of him and bounced over Jones' right shoulder to the back of the end zone for the touchback. It was yet another missed opportunity for Jones, who is having a hard time getting the ball in his hands and securing it when it does come his way.
"I'm in a funk right now," an upbeat Jones said Wednesday. "That's all."
A flurry of dropped passes on potential big plays has left Jones with an uncertain role on offense heading into the Ravens' matchup with the Indianapolis Colts Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts are averaging an NFL-high 34 points a game and the Ravens will need strong performances from their top playmakers to keep pace.
For the past two years, Jones has been one of those guys, but through four games this season, he has more drops (five unofficially) than catches (three).
"Things like that are going to happen," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who has targeted Jones 10 times with just three of them being completed for 20 yards. "I think drops sometimes are things that are very obvious and out there, but they happen. … And that's the last thing [Jones] should be worrying about. All he should be thinking is positive thoughts and going out there and getting ready to make some big plays for us, because that's what he's going to do."
Jones has gone consecutive games without a reception for the first time since 2008, his second NFL season. In the Ravens' 38-10 win over the Panthers, Flacco found him open on a slant route. However, the ball hit off Jones' hands and bounced to the turf, providing a microcosm of the first four games for the wide receiver.
Against the Panthers, Jones played a season-low seven offensive snaps, while Marlon Brown had a bigger role, playing 31 snaps and catching three balls for 31 yards. Kamar Aiken, who is considered the fifth receiver, also played 14 snaps and had one catch for 22 yards.
"The plays that I'm not making, I make in my sleep," said Jones, who has 67 receptions in the previous two seasons with the Ravens. "I've been doing this for eight years. Like I said, every good player goes through this type of situation. I just have to keep working. It's the situation I'm in right now and you have to keep working to get out of it. That's all. I just have to get over it."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh has said he feels that Jones, so desperate to make a positive contribution, is pressing. That was evident when Jones fielded a punt on his own 2-yard line against Carolina. Harbaugh urged Jones to focus on the "fundamentals and the details," and be persistent.
Jones spends significant time before and after most practices catching balls from the JUGS machine. While there were some questions about his hands when he was with the Houston Texans, Jones had been pretty consistent catching the football since he became a Raven.
But those hands, which were so instrumental in the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII run, have suddenly abandoned him.
"That's how the game goes," Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "Sometimes, things go your way. You got to stay patient, stay the course. It's not like he stopped being a good football player. It's really that simple. It comes in spurts."
Smith and Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, one of Jones' closest friends on the team, have urged him to stay upbeat and focus on making the next play.
"We've had conversations. I've told Jacoby, 'This is how it is,' " Jimmy Smith said. "There are ups and downs in this game. If everything was perfect, it just wouldn't be right. Nobody goes out and catches every single ball thrown to him. He's going through a little phase right now. He'll get past it. All he has to do is catch one big play and he'll get back to [being] Jacoby."
It certainly would help break the ice if Jones was able to make a big play on special teams. However, opposing teams have tried to avoid him with long or diagonal kicks. Jones returned four kickoffs for 109 yards in the season-opening loss to Bengals. Since then, he hasn't had an opportunity for a return as the last 10 kickoffs to the Ravens have gone for touchbacks.
Jones has also called for fair catches on six of 11 punts, returning five for an average of 13.4 yards.
"I've never been through a year or a situation like this where nobody kicked me the ball at all," said Jones, who has four return touchdowns in two-plus seasons with the Ravens and made the 2012 Pro Bowl team as a return specialist. "All these squib kicks we are getting, kicking the ball over my head — it's something different. I guess I have to be patient and wait for that one time where they do mess up and give me that one ball I can return."
Jones probably shouldn't expect many opportunities Sunday. Colts' kickoff specialist Pat McAfee leads the NFL with 24 touchbacks and Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano is aware of how dangerous Jones is with the ball in his hands.
"If you know anything about him, you're not going to let your guard down," Pagano said. "We certainly cannot do that. He's a great returner — not a good one. He's a great one. At any point and in any game, he can take one to the house and break your back and it's a game changer, and it could cost you a football game. Just like we're going to prepare for a great defense, we're going to prepare accordingly for a great returner in Jacoby."