PHILADELPHIA — The Ravens’ second drive of their first preseason game had ended at their 49-yard line, which made Justin Bethel’s job easier. Or at least less difficult. Because if what Bethel had to do in just six seconds Aug. 8 were easy, he probably wouldn’t have a contract that will take him to his eighth NFL season.
As Sam Koch settled himself at the Ravens’ 35 and waited for long snapper Morgan Cox’s fourth-down delivery, he knew where he wanted to put his punt and hoped Bethel would beat the ball to the spot. The Jacksonville Jaguars had Keelan Cole deep as their returner and eight players in the box. That meant Bethel and fellow gunner Chris Moore were mano a mano outside. No double teams to worry about.
With 7:11 on the clock in the first quarter, Koch took Cox’s snap. At 7:05, the ball was in Bethel’s hands 3 yards from the goal line, the punt never having even touched the M&T Bank Stadium grass. It was a 48-yard, foot-launched alley-oop, the most special of special teams deliveries. So many things could have gone wrong for Koch or Bethel, factors in and out of their control. None had.
“You're going down there, you're hoping that the returner doesn't come hit you prior to you catching the ball,” Koch explained Tuesday. “You've got to understand where you're at on the field, so you don't step on the end zone, touch the ball. But somebody's who's an athlete like [Bethel], and as well as Chris Moore, it's one of those things that, yeah, it may be a very difficult play. They just don't make it look that difficult.”
If you missed the play, Bethel’s feelings aren’t hurt. Kicker Justin Tucker’s Ravens jersey may be the most popular in some sections at home games, but Bethel knows that special teams execution can come off about as sexy as an infomercial or pregame calisthenics. Seeing him on the field means it’s OK to make a chicken-wing run or take a quick bathroom break. “That’s kind of just the nature of it,” he said.
But if you missed the post-punt celebration, you’d understand why Bethel, 29, doesn’t mind being overlooked. Because he wasn’t on the Ravens sideline. Koch made a beeline for Bethel and high-fived him. Other players showed him love. Coaches gave him kudos.
Safety Tony Jefferson, a former Arizona Cardinals teammate, had told Bethel long before he signed in March that he’d end up in Baltimore soon enough. The Ravens love special teams, Jefferson explained. It didn’t just take a two-year, $4 million contract for Bethel to figure that out.
“You can just tell that plays like that [downed punt], they really don't take them for granted,” Bethel said Saturday. “And they really appreciate the special teams players.”
As the Ravens prepare for Thursday’s preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles and bear down on the Aug. 31 deadline for 53-man-roster cuts, however, Bethel’s deal hasn’t made him impervious to on-the-bubble discussions. On a secondary that, even with Tavon Young’s potentially season-ending neck injury, might be the NFL’s best, his struggles at cornerback in training camp stood out. Last season, with the Atlanta Falcons, he didn’t play one defensive snap.
Bethel said he hasn’t seen any roster projections. He’s not interested in what they have to say. He trusts that coach John Harbaugh, with his special teams background, knows the risks and the rewards of filling a roster spot with a player who might go weeks without hearing his name mentioned on a game broadcast.
“For me, it's just go out there and do what I can,” he said. “I know what I bring on special teams, and now it's just going out there and showing that I can have some value on defense.
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“And this goes for everybody — rookies, everybody — as long as you're showing something on film, there's 31 other teams. And obviously, I want to be here, but rookies, older guys, vets, there's always other teams. That's why you've got to put good stuff, your resumes, on the film. You've got to just keep putting good stuff on the field and have a good resume, and you're going to get to play in this league.”
The Ravens would likely recoup a mid- to late-round compensatory 2020 draft pick if Bethel’s released before Week 10, but his place in their short-term roster plans appears safe. The three-time Pro Bowl selection looked on from the sideline Tuesday as other, less experienced gunners faced off against the Eagles during special teams drills in their second joint practice, and he continued to rotate in at cornerback with the team’s reserve defensive backfield.
Afterward, Koch called him “a leader,” someone who understands ball flights like they’re a second language and carries himself like Ravens special teams staple Anthony Levine Sr. Through Bethel, Koch said, players can understand “how it is a guy like that” — a sixth-round pick of Football Championship Subdivision program Presbyterian with four career interceptions in six NFL seasons — “has made a living through special teams.”
Jefferson’s advice to him, Bethel recalled, is simple: “Do what I do.” Don’t worry about whether the Ravens need a sixth wide receiver or a ninth offensive lineman. Make the plays he knows he can make, the plays Bethel knows the Ravens appreciate.
“He can go out, he can go play corner when you need him to, but his value is, he’s a special teams gunner, and you can’t block him,” special teams coordinator Chris Horton said Sunday. “It’s an effort thing, it’s a want-to thing, and he’s fine. So it’s not so much of a, ‘He can’t do one or the other,’ because I think he’s really good at one, and more than serviceable at the other. … You’re good at one, you’re OK at the other, and it’s OK, because what you’re really good at is valuable.”