Justin Tucker could only stare in bewilderment as he watched the Buffalo wind seize his well-struck attempt.
With almost 11 minutes left in the second quarter of the Ravens’ AFC divisional-round matchup, the most reliable kicker in NFL history had just missed for a second straight time. Tucker’s uncharacteristic performance was another bleak element in a night to forget for the Ravens.
Their vaunted special teams, which had played so well throughout the 2020 season, could not save them in a 17-3 loss to the Bills. And we soon learned that change would visit the team’s kicking Wolfpack, which had prowled in the same configuration for nine seasons.
In the last of a series of position reviews, The Baltimore Sun examines the Ravens’ special teams situation.
2020 in review
The Ravens finished ninth in special teams DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) in 2019, good for most teams but beneath their lofty standard. So they entered a new season looking to improve their punt coverage and return production under second-year coordinator Chris Horton.
In the return game, they turned to rookie wide receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche II, both of whom avoided the mistakes that had plagued the team previously. Duvernay was especially good, averaging 27.5 yards on 21 kickoff returns and 11.5 yards on four punt returns when Proche was inactive late in the season.
The Ravens also excelled in kickoff and punt coverage, preventing game-changing returns and frequently pinning opponents deep in their own territory. As a result, they jumped to second in special teams DVOA.
Tucker made his fifth Pro Bowl in nine seasons, and punter Sam Koch finished ninth in net punting average despite missing a game for the first time in his career because he had to go on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Skinny: Tucker missed three of six field-goal attempts in the playoffs and missed from inside 40 yards for the first time since 2013. But he made 26 of 29 attempts in the regular season, and his accuracy was just one percentage point off his career mark. On kickoffs, he ranked sixth in the league with 65 touchbacks.
Contract status: The 31-year-old Tucker will make a $3.5 million base salary with a $5.1 million salary cap number in the second season of the four-year extension he signed.
Skinny: Koch has played more games for the Ravens than anyone in team history after he passed Terrell Suggs in Week 5. He rolled right along in season 15, ranking ninth in the league with a net average of 42.5 yards and putting 22 of his 51 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Contract status: The 38-year-old Koch will make a $1.85 million base salary with a $2.9 million cap charge in the first season of a two-year extension he signed last March.
Skinny: The third member of the Wolfpack made his fourth Pro Bowl in his 11th season as the Ravens’ long snapper. Shortly after the playoff loss to the Bills, the Ravens informed Cox he would not be back with the team in 2021.
Contract status: Cox is headed for unrestricted free agency.
Skinny: Though his usage at wide receiver wavered, Duvernay gave the Ravens a jolt in the return game. He averaged 27.5 yards on 21 kickoff returns (including a touchdown in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs) and appeared equally capable on punt returns when he took that role from Proche late in the season.
Contract status: Duvernay will make an $818,000 base salary with a $1.04 million cap number in the second season of the four-year deal he signed as a third-round pick out of Texas.
James Proche II
Skinny: Proche won the punt returner job in training camp and performed his duties cleanly, though not explosively (long return of 20 yards), over 14 regular-season games. The rookie was a healthy scratch for two playoff games, with the Ravens showing they were comfortable with Duvernay as their punt returner. But team officials have said Proche remains part of their plans.
Contract status: Proche will make a $780,000 base salary with an $822,000 cap number in the second season of a four-year deal he signed as a sixth-round pick out of SMU.
Skinny: The Ravens raised eyebrows when they regularly protected Moore to prevent the backup long snapper from being claimed off their practice squad. He played in Week 12 when Cox was on the reserve/COVID-19 list and is expected to serve as a younger, cheaper replacement in 2021.
Contract status: The Ravens signed the 28-year-old Moore to a reserve/futures contract in January.
Skinny: Though he’s listed as a safety, Richards played just 15 defensive snaps in 2020. He led the Ravens with 334 special teams snaps and has settled in as one of the veteran anchors the Ravens like to keep for their coverage units.
Contract status: Richards will make $1.015 million with an $875,000 cap number in 2021.
Skinny: Board earned more time at linebacker in 2020, but special teams play remains essential to his identity with the Ravens. He finished second to Richards with 331 special teams snaps.
Contract status: The Ravens have a decision to make on Board, who’s a restricted free agent. Will they offer him a tender or hope to re-sign him at a lesser annual rate?
Skinny: The Ravens re-signed Moore for the 2020 season because of his stalwart special teams play, but finger and thigh injuries kept him out of all but four games. Given the team’s love for its special teams core, we can’t rule out a return engagement in 2021.
Contract status: Moore is headed for unrestricted free agency.
1. Will we notice Nick Moore as he tries to replace Cox?
It’s rare for a team to cause much of a ripple by changing long snappers, but the Wolfpack became a significant part of the Ravens’ identity over nine seasons as a unit. Tucker and Koch have often credited the group’s deep familiarity and shared attention to detail for their individual success.
So the younger, cheaper Moore will face unusual pressure to keep this train on the tracks. The Ravens had a year to assess him and liked what they saw enough to move on from Cox. But if Moore makes even one glaring mistake, second-guessers will emerge in force.
2. Will Tucker’s postseason struggles carry over at all?
Baltimore Ravens Insider
In the perpetually stormy world of NFL kicking, Tucker is the Rock of Gibraltar — a source of confidence for the Ravens going into every difficult matchup. No one was more disgusted than him when his missed field goals became part of the problem against Buffalo.
“I felt like the ball came off my foot really, really well, and the ball just didn’t go through,” he said the day after. “At the end of the day, ‘almost’ doesn’t cut it.”
In this case, the weather — which also tortured Bills kicker Tyler Bass — really was the enemy. Tucker gave us little reason during the season to think his leg strength or attention to craft had diminished. He’s nowhere near the list of problems the Ravens must address over the next six months.
3. Will the Ravens devote resources and roster spots to maintaining their special teams core?
No team prioritizes special teams more than the Ravens under John Harbaugh. So many of their roster decisions at the end of each training camp come down to the third phase of NFL play.
Don’t expect this to change after Horton’s crew rebounded with excellent all-around performance in 2020. But the Ravens will have to make free-agent decisions on key contributors such as Board, Chris Moore and Anthony Levine Sr. History has taught us they will invest in trusted special teams performers over more glamorous alternatives.
The Ravens will look for potential special teams contributors in the draft, but they don’t have a lot of obvious work to do in this area.
Ravens position reviews
- S: Safety tandem is set for now, but depth is needed
- CB: Despite injury-filled 2020, cornerbacks should again headline defense
- ILB: Patrick Queen is the new leader at inside linebacker. What’s his next step?
- DL: Defensive line helped stop Derrick Henry, but another overhaul is coming soon
- OLB: Massive hole at outside linebacker looms with top contributors set to hit free agency
- OL: Help needed on an offensive line that collapsed in playoff loss to Bills
- WR: Wide receivers take small steps forward, but there’s still a big need
- TE: Mark Andrews is the headliner at tight end, but Nick Boyle’s return is key
- RB: J.K. Dobbins is a rising star, but will Gus Edwards rejoin him in Baltimore?
- QB: Lamar Jackson enters a pivotal offseason, and backup job is up for grabs