In previous years, Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg’s weekly availability with the media was either concise or brimming with flattery. This fall, however, Rosburg’s sessions have been longer and filled with more pointed questions.
The contrast has accompanied a season in which a usually excellent unit has appeared more pedestrian. After ranking in the top five in special teams by analytics website Football Outsiders in each of the past six years, the Ravens currently sit at No. 15 – their lowest ranking since finishing 2011 at No. 30.
Never one to mince words, Rosburg acknowledged the special teams’ substandard performances.
“Right now, we’re performing at a very average level,” he said Thursday. “Statistics bear that out. We’re average, and we’re not used to being average. We don’t want to be average. We don’t aspire to be average. We aspire to be great.”
That sentiment is shared by the players Rosburg mentors.
“I would say we always have a high bar here,” said long snapper Morgan Cox, who has spent his entire nine-year career with the franchise that signed him as an undrafted rookie. “So whether it is more mistakes or not, we don’t want any mistakes. We’re always trying to meet those expectations, and there’s always another week in the NFL until the final game of the season. So we’re trying to win the games just the same as we always are, and we’re practicing as hard as we ever do. If there were mistakes made, we’re going to make sure to fix those mistakes and move onto the next week.”
The special teams’ struggles are documented.
The Ravens are on their third punt returner of the season in former New England Patriot and Gilman graduate Cyrus Jones after giving undrafted rookie Janarion Grant and second-year pro Tim White a shot.
A blown blocking scheme resulted in punter Sam Koch getting a punt blocked in a Week 3 victory over the Denver Broncos. Kicker Justin Tucker has had two field goals blocked — including one that should have been penalized — and missed an extra point that cemented a one-point loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 7 after 222 successful attempts to start his career.
The Saints converted a fake punt in that win, while the Ravens’ successful fake-punt conversion on fourth down was nullified by an illegal shift penalty called on Cox in Sunday’s 15-point loss at the Carolina Panthers.
The problems that plagued the special teams are probably not that dissimilar from those affecting other clubs. But the Ravens having to deal with them is a somewhat unfamiliar burden.
“I think it’s just all part of the game,” Koch said. “We’ve had some unfortunate incidents with the fake, with the blocked kick and stuff like that. We try to be the best we can year in and year out and each and every day, and at the end of the day, [expletive] happens at times. It’s our way of going out there, seeing what happens, and learning from it and getting better from it.”
Six players who have played more than 20 percent of the snaps on special teams are in either their first or second year as a pro, and three of them are rookies in linebackers Chris Board and Kenny Young and running back De’Lance Turner (who was placed on injured reserve Oct. 13).
But wide receiver-kick returner Chris Moore dismissed youth as a contributing factor to the unit’s faults.
“I wouldn’t say that their learning curve is that steep,” he said. “They’re getting it fast. It’s just a matter of piecing it all together now. We’ve switched returners in the middle of the season, and that changes things. So it’s just a matter of time before we get all the people together and get our chemistry going.”
Many players insisted they have been able to remain calm about the gaffes because they sense the special teams unit is close to making a breakthrough.
“It hasn’t been really frustrating because like I said, it’s just been little things, very minor things that happen to us where you’re like, ‘We’re that close. We’re a half-inch away from one block,’ ” said defensive back Anthony Levine Sr., who has earned the nickname “Co-Cap” for his leadership on special teams. “There are certain things where we could easily be back in the top five in special teams. It’s just the little things.”
Rosburg said his faith that the unit will improve is rooted in what he has seen from the players.
“What I’m saying right now is our performance isn’t matching our preparation and our practice and even our aspirations,” he said. “But the good thing is, we’ve got eight more games, and I’m not discouraged at all. I’m disappointed in some of our results, but I’m encouraged by the kind of guys we’ve got doing it. I’m encouraged by what I see on the practice field and in the meeting room. It’s our job as coaches to get that done, to bring it out on Sundays, and that’s what we’re going to try to do this week.”
Coach John Harbaugh, who spent 10 seasons as the Philadelphia Eagles special teams coordinator, backed his coordinator.
“We’re working to get better,” he said. “We’re working hard to improve every area. I thought we played well last week. We keep getting better, keep coaching our young guys up, try to find a way to get the return game going. We’ve had some good punt returns. We had a good kickoff return last week. We ran a good punt fake. I think we improved last week, so we just try to keep building on that.”
Levine said there might be a silver lining to the special teams’ recent troubles.
“I’m glad we’re making them now,” he said, “so that in the long haul, we won’t be making those.”
Special teams shortcomings
The Ravens have generally avoided the kind of blunders that have plagued other NFL franchises. This season, however, they have had to deal with an assortment of errors, including two blocked field goals, one blocked punt and one missed extra point. Here is the last time before this season the Ravens have absorbed those gaffes.
Type; Date; Who
Blocked punt; Dec. 23, 2017; Anthony Walker (Indianapolis Colts)
Blocked field goal; Oct. 26, 2017; Vincent Taylor (Miami Dolphins)
Missed extra point; Oct. 27, 1996; Matt Stover
Special teams slide
A number of mistakes have dropped the Ravens to No. 15 in a ranking of NFL special teams by analytics website Football Outsiders. Here is how the Ravens have ranked in previous years.
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