Janarion Grant has spent only about four months in the NFL, but the Ravens rookie is well aware of the important role special teams can play in the fate of a franchise. So he took a critical stance after having a couple of days to digest the unit’s mistake-filled performance in Monday’s 20-19 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
“We did OK, but we had too many penalties, and that’s on us to fix,” the wide receiver and return specialist said Wednesday. “And we have to cover our fumbles. Each returner had a fumble. We’ve just got to protect the ball and be more secure. That’s the first thing we’ve got to do. That’s our main job — to have the ball at the end of the play.”
The encouraging thing is the Ravens’ troubles on special teams in Indianapolis unfolded during a preseason game that doesn’t count toward the regular season and many will forget it in a matter of days. And some players who were guilty of those gaffes might not be with the team when the season opens Sept. 9 against the Buffalo Bills at M&T Bank Stadium.
But those caveats were of little consolation to special teams coordinator and associate head coach Jerry Rosburg, who initially joked he was allowed back into the organization’s headquarters in Owings Mills the day after the game despite what happened against the Colts.
“Those kinds of mistakes, we can learn from, certainly,” he said Wednesday. “That’s not how we want to play. There are some lessons learned. There is a lesson learned on kickoff return because of the new rules, one that we knew had been violated. So there are a lot of things to be learned from those things, but that’s not our style. That’s not how we want to play. We went to work this morning in the meeting and in practice to fix those issues, and we think we have players that it really matters to them how they play, and when they see that stuff, they don’t like it either. So we’ll get it corrected.”
The Ravens’ problems on special teams were numerous. Tim White and Grant each lost fumbles on punt returns, in the first and third quarters, respectively. The team committed five penalties for a loss of 34 yards, including a pair of offsides transgressions — on a kickoff and a field goal block in the second quarter. Also, a blocked punt by rookie Kaare Vedvik led to the Colts scoring a touchdown late in the fourth quarter that had them a two-point conversion away from preventing the Ravens from extending their preseason winning streak to 11.
The fumbled punt returns by White and Grant were the most obvious mistakes. Although safety Anthony Levine Sr. intercepted a pass by Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck to kill one drive in the first quarter and the defense shut the Colts down on fourth down-and-goal from the 3-yard line in the third, both players chastised themselves for their errors.
“My job is to protect the ball and put the team in the best position,” said White, a second-year player who missed all of last season because of torn ligaments in his thumb. “That’s what I’ve got to do to improve.”
Grant’s fumble occurred after he had danced his way through Indianapolis’ coverage unit for 18 yards before getting tackled from behind and stripped by linebacker Matthew Adams in the third quarter.
“I felt like I was going to take that one back to the crib,” said Grant, who left Rutgers as the program’s all-time leader in kick return yards and ranked fourth in punt return yards. “So that was awful, but I’m going to get that back.”
Not surprisingly, the competition for the return specialist job is still open, and candidates such as wide receivers Willie Snead IV and rookie Jordan Lasley are waiting for their opportunities to take back kicks and/or punts. Rosburg noted coach John Harbaugh emphasized the importance of ball security by the returners in front of the entire team in the locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium after Monday’s game.
“They have the duty to the rest of the team to protect the football, and they know that,” Rosburg said. “It’s two young players that got in situations where they didn’t realize that they needed to practice the ball-security habits that they both have. They have those skills, and in both those situations, they need to lock the ball down, and they didn’t. Hopefully, the lesson has been learned. As we go forward, those two guys are both going to get opportunities, and we’ll see how it plays out as we go down the stretch here.”
On the blocked punt, Colts defensive end Tarell Basham bulled past rookie inside linebacker Chris Board and safety Kai Nacua to stretch out his left hand as Vedvik booted the ball. Rosburg said any blame for that play should be directed at him.
“I took the hit for it, real honestly, in front of the players, because it’s a basic premise of our punt protection that we did not have clarity on and — with the young players that were out there at that time, at that moment — that’s where clarity is so important, and we didn’t have it,” he said. “As a coach, I take full responsibility for those guys not having a complete understanding of what they’re supposed to do in that situation.”
While there is no single criteria for determining the best special teams unit in the league, the Ravens have occupied a spot in the top five of former Dallas Morning News writer Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings for six consecutive years. Remaining as one of the best units in the league is the unspoken objective for the players.
“We’re always looking for perfection,” White said. “It may not be attainable, but we’re looking to be the best. We want to be the best in the league, and in order to do that, we can’t turn the ball over and we have to do things. So we’re definitely hard on ourselves and looking to improve.”
The Ravens will get a chance to show what they learned in Saturday’s exhibition at the Miami Dolphins, which looms in significance despite the game’s preseason label.
“It doesn’t count, but I feel like it counts to us,” Grant said. “Even though it’s just the preseason, every little thing matters. Every alignment, assignment and technique, that’s what we have to accomplish in each game.”