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With some razzle-dazzle, Ravens emerge as the NFL’s best special teams unit

After the NFL’s best special teams unit made one of its best plays this season, Sam Koch and Morgan Cox went looking for more work.

It was late in the first half of the Ravens' game Sunday against the Washington Football Team, and Koch had just made history. With a 15-yard completion on a fake punt to wide receiver Miles Boykin, he’d become the only passer in NFL history with 100% accuracy on at least seven pass attempts.

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He’d also moved the Ravens into field-goal range. Koch and Cox, their long snapper, couldn’t celebrate for long. So back to the sideline they went, back to practicing with kicker Justin Tucker. Just in case.

“In a lot of ways,” Cox said in an interview Thursday, “we’re pretty boring on game day.”

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Boring can be good. Four games in, the Ravens have been so consistent in some of their special teams phases that they’ve robbed them of any drama.

But calling this special teams unit boring would be like calling the presidential debates boring. Ahead of Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals (1-2-1), these Ravens (3-1) are crackling with possibility in ways that last year’s team often didn’t.

They’re snuffing out kick returns and bringing back their own for scores. They’re throwing passes on punts and thriving on punt returns. If it seems like no one’s playing better than coordinator Chris Horton’s unit, it’s probably because no one is.

According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens easily rank No. 1 in the NFL in special teams, with their overall efficiency rated 13.6% better than the average NFL team. (The Miami Dolphins, who rank No. 2, are just 6.8% better.) It could be a historic pace: No team since 1985 has finished with a higher relative efficiency than the 2002 New Orleans Saints (12.2%).

Even with rookies at punt returner (James Proche II) and kickoff returner (Devin Duvernay), the Ravens have thrived in every facet of their play. According to Football Outsiders, the team ranks fourth in field-goal and extra-point kicking, second in kickoffs, first in kickoff returns, ninth in punts and sixth in punt returns.

“We understand that if we go out and we play our style of football that week, then you know what? We will be at the top,” Horton said in a video conference call Thursday. "So for our guys, it’s not about rankings and things like that right now, because it’s just the beginning. We have a lot more football ahead of us, but I’ll tell you what: I do love the way our leaders are leading, and I do love the way our young guys are playing. ...

“I’m encouraged by what we’re seeing our players do. So we just have to keep that up and we take them one week at a time. We don’t look back. We don’t look ahead. We look at what’s in front of us, and right now, that’s the Cincinnati Bengals.”

It’s a challenge the Ravens' specials teams linchpins relish maybe more than any other. Under special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, Cincinnati has finished as a top-10 unit in four of the past six seasons. Cox called it a “good special teams rivalry every year.”

Last year, when the Bengals had Football Outsiders' No. 1 group, Brandon Wilson returned the opening kickoff of their Week 6 matchup 92 yards for a touchdown. Tucker went 3-for-3 in an eventual 23-17 win, including a 49-yard field goal, but the game underscored the Ravens' weak spots. Having the NFL’s best kicker and a reliable special teams battery couldn’t cover for everything.

So the Ravens built on what they had and added where they needed to. There was no point in breaking up the “Wolfpack." Tucker, an All-Pro last season, is 8-for-8 on field-goal attempts and 14-for-14 on extra-point tries this year. Koch, a Pro Bowl alternate, is sixth in the NFL in net punting average (44.7 yards) and the only punter to complete a pass. Cox, a Pro Bowl selection, helps keep the whole operation in sync.

But at the return spots, there was turnover. When punt returner De’Anthony Thomas opted out of the 2020 season, Proche seized the job. The sure-handed wide receiver ranks sixth in the NFL with 11.1 yards per return and has had only one significant error, leaving a Cleveland Browns punt to roll to the 1-yard line in the Ravens' season opener.

On kickoffs, Duvernay has been a revelation. With wide receiver Chris Moore and running back Justice Hill sidelined early this season, the Ravens turned to the speedster who’d returned just 10 kickoffs over his final two seasons at Texas.

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The first kickoff Duvernay got his hands on, he returned 38 yards. The next one led the Ravens onto the field at their 42-yard line. In Week 3, with quarterback Lamar Jackson and the offense struggling early against the Kansas City Chiefs, he scored on a 93-yard sprint down the right sideline — still the NFL’s only kickoff return for a touchdown this season.

“We have some young guys who are really committed to it,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “When you bring in young players who like football and want to play, and they understand the value of just being on the field … there are not too many really good football players who don’t excel on special teams, historically, [during] the time I’ve been in the league.”

Tucker and Cox hailed the offseason work of Horton and special teams coaches T.J. Weist and Randy Brown, noting their attention to detail in Zoom meetings. And under Harbaugh, a former special teams coordinator himself, Cox said the Ravens' commitment to and investment in the unit are “really second to none.”

After all, it’s not just the big names and big plays that have made the Ravens' special teams unit the NFL’s best this season. It’s the leadership of veterans like Anthony Levine Sr. It’s the willingness of blockers like Nick Boyle and Patrick Ricard to help carve a path for returners. It’s the hustle of players like Hill and inside linebacker L.J. Fort, who’ve helped the Ravens limit every punt return to no more than 10 yards and every kickoff return to no more than 20.

“I think more than anything, we just have guys that care and guys that are good football players,” Tucker said. “As simple as that may sound, those sorts of things really do go a long way.”

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