In the past, the Ravens have used special teams to flip outcomes of games in their favor. On Sunday, the unit had the opposite effect.
From surrendering an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter to failing badly on a fake field-goal attempt in the second quarter to allowing punts to fall inside the 10-yard line, special teams was anything but special in the 16-10 loss to the Washington Redskins.
"It's real disappointing," inside linebacker and typical special teams standout Zachary Orr said of the unit's troubles on Sunday. "It's something we're not accustomed to at all."
The gaffes on special teams began in the first quarter when Jamison Crowder took Sam Koch's punt 85 yards to knot the score at 7-7 with 4:52 left in the first period. The punt return for a score was Washington's first since 2008 and marked the second-longest punt return for a touchdown by a Ravens opponent — just one yard short of the Cincinnati Bengals' Craig Yeast's return on Nov. 21, 1999.
Crowder slipped a tackle attempt by Orr and ran past Koch to the end zone. Opponents have now compiled 478 return yards against the Ravens, who surrendered 405 yards in 16 games last season.
"That was definitely disappointing," said tight end Darren Waller, who was part of the coverage team on Crowder's touchdown. "I feel like after that, the special teams leaders on the sidelines stepped it up, and after that, our punt coverage was pretty solid from there on. But we just can't allow that to happen."
Coach John Harbaugh pointed to that play as a turning point in the game.
"I told the team in there, it starts with that," he said. "We have to get that fixed. Now we have special teams players who are starting on defense and the young guys aren't going to step up and play special teams, I guess. That has to change. We're not having it. That's what gave them the spark to get back in the game, in my mind. We let them back in the game with a punt return for a touchdown. It's not what we do. That's not winning football."
One quarter later, the team lined up for a 34-yard field goal attempt. But kicker Justin Tucker, bizarely lining up to take a left-footed kick, took a direct snap and rolled to his right. His pass to tight end Crockett Gillmore hit strong safety Duke Ihenacho in the helmet and bounced to the grass.
Tucker, who said the last time he threw a pass was at Westlake High School in Austin, Tex., said it felt good when he let the ball go.
"I'd like to think I still have some football skills outside of just being able to kick the ball," he said. "I trust my ability to throw the ball, catch the ball, run it, tackle somebody if I need to, and that's what we had prescribed today. Would I like to have that one back? Sure, but we don't get that luxury. We move on."
Harbaugh defended his own decision to go for it.
"I'm not second-guessing it — you can second-guess it — but I'm not second-guessing it," he said. "I've stood up here for nine years and said we're going to be aggressive. People are going to have to defend fakes, they're going to have to defend us going for it on fourth down — that's just the way we're going to continue to play because that's what we believe in. We believe in giving our players a chance to make plays, and we're going to keep doing it. We're not apologizing for that."
Just about every phase of special teams went wrong for the Ravens.They also struggled in returning punts.
In the fourth quarter, return specialist Devin Hester Sr. let a Tress Way punt roll out of bounds at the Ravens' 5-yard line and then let another punt get downed at the 8. Hester finally returned a punt 16 yards to set up the offense at the 44, but the play was negated by an illegal block penalty on Anthony Levine Sr.
"We've got to play better," Hester said. "They didn't do anything special. It's us. We've just got to play better."
In a 28-27 loss to the Oakland Raiders alst week, the Ravens gave up a 47-yard punt return to Jalen Richard that Oakland converted into a touchdown, and Hester coughed up a fumble on a kickoff that he recovered. Orr said the special teams struggles in back-to-back games is something that must be addressed prior to Sunday's road game against the New York Giants.
"It's definitely concerning because we felt like this week in practice, we had a great week," he said. "We were correcting some of our mistakes. All it takes is one bad play to wreck a game and for that to happen on the special teams unit, it's something we worked real hard on, especially with what happened to us last week."