Young Ravens accelerate upgrade of special teams Speed, determination fuel units to better coverage, return play

September 03, 1997|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

As he replayed the regular-season opener in his mind, Ravens special teams coach Scott O'Brien was still upset with the sloppy protection that led to a partial block of Greg Montgomery's final punt of the game.

But O'Brien, typically reserved when it comes to praise, found little else to criticize after analyzing his units' role in Sunday's 28-27 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Ravens like to point to their improvements on defense as they seek to better last year's 4-12 record. Their upgrades on special teams appear just as dramatic.

For starters, consider the Ravens' coverage teams, which consist largely of rookies and second-year players. Against Jacksonville, the kickoff units allowed an average of just 16 yards per return. Jacksonville returned only one kickoff beyond its 20-yard line -- to the 24.

The punt team was equally effective, allowing only 6 yards on two Jaguars returns. Montgomery twice pinned Jacksonville inside its 20 and averaged 43.7 yards on three tries.

Then there are the kickoff and punt return units, led by second-year man Jermaine Lewis, who has become one of the more electric performers on the team. On Sunday, Lewis averaged 39.5 yards per kickoff return, including a 42-yarder to open the second half that set up a go-ahead touchdown.

"When you've got a big-play guy with Jermaine's quickness and breakaway speed, your job is to get him started," O'Brien said. "He's really done a good job. He knows he hasn't arrived yet, and he's constantly working on little things to make himself and us better.

"Our No. 1 goal every game is to maintain good field position. As a whole, we're off to a pretty good start. We'll get better as long as we keep playing together and building chemistry and continuity."

O'Brien is depending on new faces to blend smoothly with a handful of veterans. Such as eight-year kicker Matt Stover, who started his 1997 season by going 2-for-2 on field-goal attempts. Such as Bennie Thompson, 34, who has fashioned an eight-year career by turning special teams coverage into an art form.

On Sunday, Thompson set the tone on the opening kickoff by crashing through Jacksonville's middle wedge and dropping return man Chris Parker at the Jaguars' 16. Later in the half, Tony Vinson, playing in his first NFL game, copied Thompson by making back-to-back tackles in kickoff coverage.

"I think some of the young guys feel bad about having a 40-year-old man beating them down the field," Thompson said. "Now, we've got guys who can run to the football and who want to make the tackle as badly as I do. That's what we need around here. It's not like it used to be."

Indeed, the coverage units are populated by young, unproven players, including rookies Cornell Brown, Jay Graham, Priest Holmes, Kenyon Cotton and Kim Herring.

The common denominator in this youthful group is impressive speed, which last year's coverage units lacked. That, combined with injuries that disrupted O'Brien's depth charts, made those coverage teams inconsistent at best.

"Special teams usually gives you a good evaluation of your team speed, and we've got more of that this year," O'Brien said. "Special teams also creates a way for young players to hold onto a spot, make a club and establish themselves.

"Players like Bennie study special teams as much as they study offense and defense. Bennie has a passion for it, and I think that's contagious. He teaches the younger guys how to prepare, how to watch film, how to study."

Graham, a third-round draft pick who is the Ravens' feature back the future, is relearning the special teams phase of the game. Graham has one of the more difficult jobs. In the Ravens' punt coverage scheme, he lines up wide, where he must break through a double team before he can pursue the return man.

"Playing on special teams helps you learn what it takes to play in the NFL," said Graham, who was not required to do such work in his last two years at Tennessee. "In high school and college, people think of special teams as taking a play off. It's not. It's one of the biggest plays when you get to this level. Some guys are paid specifically for this. I'm learning to enjoy it."

Coach Ted Marchibroda has enjoyed watching the development this year's special units. Even center Quentin Neujahr, who struggled early in the preseason with his short snapping on field goals and extra points, has made noticeable strides teaming with holder Montgomery.

"It's an area of huge improvement," Marchibroda said of his special teams. "Which, in turn, makes us a better football team."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Cincinnati Bengals

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

Site: Memorial Stadium

TV/Radio: Ch. 11 (subject to blackout rule); WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Bengals by 1 1/2

+ Tickets: About 6,800 remain

Schedules, stats

Team-by-team schedules and AFC and NFC leaders will run next Wednesday, Sept. 10.

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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