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Ravens' Justin Tucker striving for perfect encore to historic season

The memory of that missed field goal is still vivid to Justin Tucker.

Not the one that was blocked by New England Patriots linebacker Shea McClellin last season that prevented the Ravens kicker from joining an elite group that has completed a perfect campaign.

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No, go back to Nov. 18, 2012, when the Ravens tangled with the Pittsburgh Steelers during Tucker's rookie year. At that point, the undrafted free agent had converted 18 of 19 attempts.

"I always go back to one of my favorite moments as a pro," Tucker said. "It was my rookie year, and I missed a field goal at Heinz Field. I pushed a 41-yarder from the left hash wide right [in the second quarter], and the next ball we hit was from 39 from the right hash, and we crushed it [in the third quarter of a 13-10 win]. Straight down the middle in the open end [of the stadium], and that was kind of the enlightening moment that I can do this.

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"So I always go back to what was going through my mind at that particular time, and I try to recreate that and try to build upon that whenever we have a situation come up where the ball doesn't go through the uprights. You've just got to be able to move on and hit the next one well."

That philosophy has suited Tucker well. In five seasons, Tucker has developed into the most accurate kicker in NFL history with at least 100 field-goal attempts, compiling an 89.8 percent success rate to edge out the Dallas Cowboys' Dan Bailey's 89.5 percent.

Tucker's 168 successful field goals are the most in the league since 2012. His 76 field goals of at least 40 yards and 28 kicks of at least 50 yards are also the most in the NFL since his debut.

"He has definitely set a standard for everybody that everybody is trying to get to," said the New Orleans Saints' Wil Lutz, who was with the Ravens during last summer's training camp. "He's one of the best — if not the best — at what we do. Everybody wants to aim to be the best, and right now, it's tough to argue that he's not the best. It's cool to watch for me because I was there with him. He gives me something to chase."

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Lutz's sentiment is based partly on Tucker's 2016 season, in which he connected on 38 of 39 field-goal tries, set an NFL record with 24 makes from at least 40 yards and tied the Minnesota Vikings' Blair Walsh for the league mark of 10 field goals from at least 50 yards.

A 97.4 percent conversion rate that ranked as the fifth-best percentage in league history helped Tucker earn the second Pro Bowl invitation of his career and well-deserved praise. But what can the 27-year-old do for an encore?

CBS analyst and former NFL kicker Jay Feely said he would not be surprised if Tucker matched or even exceeded what he did last season. Feely said the key for Tucker will be to retain the form and technique that led to that success.

"If you talk to Adam Vinatieri, Adam has stayed the same; his form has stayed the same," Feely said. "It's a matter of ingraining that form and having it be consistent every single time because you're just trying to take out the inconsistencies. That's what kicking is all about. You're trying to eliminate any inconsistencies and trying to have that form over time stay exactly the same so that you have that muscle memory."

The Ravens spent heavily on their secondary in the offseason, trying to ensure that the next time they defend their season against a star quarterback, they'll be better armed.

Kickers are perfectionists when it comes to their craft. A field goal in adverse weather is a reason to celebrate, but when a kick is done under little or no outside influences, kicking the ball "just right" is of the highest priority.

"I'll always say that it's good when your mishits are going through, but it's better when your mishits are going right down the middle," Tucker said. "It's something that we scrutinize every single day, and I'd much rather have it be like that than the other way because we know that making kicks around here leads to wins."

Bailey compared life as a kicker to that of a golfer.

"You can go out and shoot a 65, but you always want to shoot 64 the next time," he said. "What happened the year before is somewhat irrelevant to the next year because you're always trying to get better. Even if you made every kick, it might be, 'Well, I'd like to make every kick right down the middle.' "

Players like to say the preseason is the time to work out the kinks. Perhaps during this past training camp more than any other, Tucker missed a surprising number of field goals in practice, including back-to-back attempts. But he was 7-for-7 in the preseason and cited former Philadelphia 76ers point guard Allen Iverson's iconic evaluation of practice.

Former Ravens kicker Matt Stover said he would not be terribly worried about Tucker.

"He's a gamer," Stover said. "It's not that he takes practice lightly, because I know that he approaches practice every day with professionalism to perform well. I did, too. I never went out there to perform poorly. Did I at times? You bet. But as long as it was left on the practice field and not on the game field, they could tolerate that. I do know that he's got enough character in him to care, and I know that the staff around him understands that Justin is going to be just fine. So come game time, I believe that Justin will be right on track."

Ravens special teams coordinator and associate head coach Jerry Rosburg sees in Tucker the same competitive fire that fueled Stover, Hall of Famer Morten Andersen and the Cleveland Browns' Phil Dawson when Rosburg coached them. But there is one trait that might separate Tucker from others.

"There are so many things that go into being a good place-kicker, but the one thing that's really vital is the ability to concentrate," Rosburg said. "He has that ability, he can focus on the moment and he enjoys those moments so much that he's not thinking about all of that other stuff. That doesn't matter for the next kick. It's just the kick, focusing on that kick. The ability for any athlete to focus on the task at hand is a precious skill. I think the great ones at every position in every sport have the mental capacity and the strength of concentration, and he has that."

Tucker avoids revealing any numbers he is aiming for. ("It's cool for a headline, I guess," he said.) But he does not shy away from the pressure of trying to reach the bar that he set less than a year ago.

"Expectations are high for us, especially after the season we had kicking the ball. I appreciate that," he said. "I wouldn't have it any other way. I wouldn't want our fans, our beat writers, the front office, our coaches, anybody around me to be OK with average, and we certainly are not. We are constantly striving for perfection in everything that we do."

The two-time Pro Bowl player discusses his success, his priorities and his trend of watching every Alabama game.

Just Kickin' It

Ravens kicker Justin Tucker enjoyed one of the finest seasons in NFL history in 2016, converting all but one of his field-goal attempts, and that miss was blocked. Here's a look at how Tucker's campaign stacked up against some of the best years produced by other kickers with a minimum of 16 attempts, which is the qualifying number set by the league.

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Year;Name (Team);FG Made-Att.;FG Pct.;PAT Made-Att.;PAT Pct.;Total Points

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1998;Gary Anderson (MIN);35-35;100.0;59-59;100.0;164

2003;Mike Vanderjagt (IND);37-37;100.0;46-46;100.0;157

2000;Jeff Wilkins (STL);17-17;100.0;38-38;100.0;89

1991;Tony Zendejas (LAR);17-17;100.0;25-26;96.2;76

2016;Justin Tucker (BAL);38-39;97.4;27-27;100.0;141

2014;Adam Vinatieri (IND); 30-31;96.8;50-50;100.0;140

1995;Chris Boniol (DAL);27-28;96.4;46-48;95.8;127

1993;Norm Johnson (ATL);26-27;96.3;34-34; 100.0;112

1997;Pete Stoyanovich (MIA);26-27;96.3;35-36;97.2;113

2013;Matt Prater (DEN);25-26;96.2;75-75;100.0;150

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