Special teams a huge part of Ravens' return to playoff contention

When rookies and young newcomers arrive at the Ravens’ headquarters in Owings Mills for the first time, their heads are spinning. And that’s before several veterans from the special teams unit get a hold of them to educate them on the importance of playing special teams.

“We win games on special teams, and to be a Raven, you’ve got to be great on special teams,” defensive back Anthony Levine Sr. said of the point emphasized to his younger teammates. “If you want to be here, you’ve got to make an impact, and that’s what we’re doing. On special teams, we’re trying to take over a game.”

Levine’s words are almost prophetic because the Ravens have benefited this season from their production on special teams. The unit has flourished in several statistical categories such as:

* Returns: The Ravens rank second in the NFL in both kick return average (28.1 yards per return) and punt return average (12.6) and are the only team to take a kickoff and a punt back for touchdowns. Michael Campanaro leads the AFC and ranks second in the NFL in punt return average (14.7 yards per return).

* Field goals: After a slow start, Justin Tucker is tied for eighth in the league with 23 field goals made and ranks 14th in field-goal percentage at 88.5. On Thursday, he earned the fourth AFC Special Teams Player of the Month honor of his career, setting a new franchise record.

* Punts: Sam Koch leads the NFL with 29 punts dropped inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. He also has connected with wide receiver Chris Moore on two successful fake punts for first downs, with both coming in two of the team’s past three games.

* Kickoff coverage: Opponents have averaged just 19.3 yards per kick return against the Ravens, which ranks fifth in the NFL. Only 10 teams have had fewer kicks returned against them than the Ravens.

“It’s been a big factor in us winning games,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Special teams has made a difference. I think strategically, we’ve been able to use them in a really good way to make a difference, and they’ve come through. … They’ve made fourth-down conversions and scored touchdowns. Those are things that are pretty amazing.”

But for all of the unit’s success, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said the players are just tapping into their potential.

“[Assistant special teams coach] Chris [Horton] and I were watching the tape [from Monday night’s win over the Houston Texans], and there’s still so many things that we see out there that we need to do better,” Rosburg said. “It’s an ongoing process, it’s a week-to-week thing, it’s a play-to-play thing. Our players are dedicated to be good, and so we keep working to get better. We keep correcting the mistakes that we make and try to make sure we have a better understanding. Our young players are getting better and better, and it takes a lot of hard work and our guys are willing to do it, and we appreciate that from them.”

Thanks to Rosburg and Harbaugh, who spent the first 10 years of his NFL coaching career as a special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Ravens have ranked in the top five in The Dallas Morning News’ annual special teams report in each of the past five seasons. And they have done so despite a steady turnover of contributors on special teams.

After finishing last season ranked fifth in the publication’s report, the unit bade farewell to Kyle Juszczyk and Kamar Aiken (free agency), Albert McClellan (injury) and Darren Waller (suspension). Despite the losses, Moore said the players understand they have to fill the void.

“I think it’s the mentality here,” he said. “We have the mentality that special teams can change a game, and it’s important here. So we practice it a lot and we make sure we’re on the field to execute it. It’s just as important as being a starting receiver or a starting defensive back.”

On Sunday, the Ravens will face a Detroit Lions group that has performed well on special teams. Coach Jim Caldwell, who was the Ravens offensive coordinator in 2012 and 2013, said Rosburg’s qualities are reflected in the plays of his special teams.

“The thing is that you have to be ready for anything at any time,” Caldwell said. “They’re very well-coached. They have a variety of different things that they do extremely well. They’re excellent obviously in place-kicking and punting, and all of the little nuances that you certainly have to be aware of, and he’s not afraid to gamble. But they’re good, as good as they come.”

Rosburg has been able to rely on the players to emphasize the importance of special teams. Levine, the unit’s leading tackler with eight, cited players such as Brendon Ayanbadejo and McClellan as mentors. Levine has carried on that tradition by counseling rookies such as linebacker Tyus Bowser, safety Chuck Clark and cornerback Marlon Humphrey.

“Special teams is important,” said Clark, the Ravens’ 2017 sixth-round draft pick who played special teams at Virginia Tech. “It’s another phase of the game that you’ve got to take advantage of. It’s a change in field position, it could be a change in possession, it could be the difference in a game. Coming out of college, I knew special teams was important.”

At 6-5, the Ravens have much work to do to capture a spot in the playoffs and could use contributions from their offense, defense and special teams. That is the ultimate goal for Rosburg and his unit.

“What we’re trying to do above all else is try to win games. If we can play a role in us winning a game, yeah, I’m super excited,” he said. “If we don’t win, it won’t matter. How we lost is really irrelevant. Winning is the thing. If we contribute to the win, that’s fabulous. We love that part.”

Special teams support

The special teams unit has made important contributions to the Ravens’ season thus far. Here are the team’s most significant plays thus far.

Date; Opponent; Play

Oct. 15; Bears; Bobby Rainey returned kickoff 96 yards for touchdown

Oct. 15; Bears; Michael Campanaro returned punt 77 yards for touchdown

Nov. 5; Titans; Sam Koch threw 16-yard pass to Chris Moore on fourth down

Nov. 19; Packers; Moore returned kickoff 41 yards to set up touchdown

Nov. 27; Texans; Koch threw 22-yard pass to Moore on fourth down

edward.lee@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EdwardLeeSun

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
90°