Ravens' unit provides no special favors Blown punt coverage just the beginning of special teams' woes

Jets 19, Ravens 16 (ot)

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

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Leave it to safety Bennie Thompson, the veteran leader of his team's special teams unit, to summarize an afternoon in which the Ravens were anything but special in that vital area.

"I don't know what happened, but I do know that we stunk up the joint today," Thompson said. "It seemed like everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong today. We did some good things, but the bad definitely outdid the good. And it starts with me."

Not even a stand-up guy like Thompson needs to shoulder the blame for a special teams group that had plenty of goats. From blown punt coverages to mishandled kickoffs to dropped snaps to ill-timed penalties, the Ravens did themselves few favors.

At least kicker Matt Stover did his part by hitting all three of his field-goal attempts in a steady rain, including a 41-yarder that started the Ravens' scoring midway through the first quarter. Stover has connected on 22 of 24 field-goal tries this year.

If only the rest of the special teams performers were nearly as productive. On a dreary day that magnified the importance of field position and placed a demand on tidy special teams play, the Ravens put their sloppiest foot forward.

They set the tone quickly in yesterday's 19-16 overtime loss to the New York Jets. After going three-and-out on the opening drive, the Ravens punted, then watched Leon Johnson sprint through a gaping hole in the middle of the field, sparking a 60-yard return.

On the next play, quarterback Neil O'Donnell threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Fred Baxter, giving New York a 7-0 lead.

Johnson's runback was the longest punt return against the Ravens this year. Coming into yesterday's game, they were allowing just 5.4 yards per punt return, second-best in the NFL.

"Obviously, we didn't control our [coverage] lanes [in the middle], and you have to do that," said Ravens special teams coach Scott O'Brien. "Our kickoff coverage hasn't been sound all year. We've given up a big play each week there. Today, we broke down on punt coverage. It's a definite concern, and it's something we've got to keep working on."

Johnson's long punt return seemed to bring out the worst in the Ravens' special teams for the next three quarters.

The kickoff and punt coverages were all too generous, playing pivotal roles in allowing the Jets to begin successive drives at the Ravens' 13, the Ravens' 46, the Jets' 38, the Jets' 35 and at midfield in the first half. On the other side, the Ravens took over twice inside their own 20 and never began a possession deeper than their 38.

And did we mention Jermaine Lewis' sudden inability to handle kickoffs?

The Ravens' most exciting weapon went into the self-destruct mode. First, he bobbled the opening kickoff, before recovering and advancing to the Ravens' 18. Early in the second quarter, after the Jets had taken a 10-6 lead, Lewis allowed John Hall's kickoff to slip through his hands at the 10, before recovering and salvaging just a 1-yard return.

"We didn't get good field position the whole first half," said O'Brien, who dismissed the weather as an excuse. "We mishandled two kickoffs. You can't do that. You've got to handle the ball and get it up the field. That's exactly what the Jets did."

Punter Greg Montgomery offered another symbol of the Ravens' special teams futility. Although he averaged a respectable 43.0 yards on six punts and expertly handled a high snap on Stover's 41-yard field goal, Montgomery was at the center of one of the game's strangest plays.

With the Ravens lined up to punt at their 35 early in the third quarter, Montgomery dropped Brian Kinchen's perfect snap, then picked up the ball and dashed 12 yards for a first down. But Earnest Byner was flagged for holding on the play.

"Special teams lost this game, and that's rare since I've been in this organization," Thompson said. "It's not typical Scotty O'Brien special teams we're used to playing."

Point of no return

Before yesterday, when Leon Johnson's 60-yard punt return set up the Jets' first-quarter touchdown, the Ravens' coverage on returns had been mixed, soild on punts and sorry on kickoffs. A breakdown:

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Punts .. .. ..Kickoffs

Opp. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..No.-Yds .. .. ..No.-Yds

Jacksonville .. .. .. .. ....2-6 .. .. .. ..4-64

Cincinnati .. .. .. .. ... .2-11 ... .. ...5-118

at N.Y. Giants .. .. .. .. .4-29 .. .. .. ..4-77

at Tennessee .. .. .. .. .. .2-2 .. .. .. .5-158

at San Diego .. .. .. .. .. .1-6 .. .. .. ..4-89

Pittsburgh .. .. .. .. .. ..4-11 .. .. .. .4-148

Miami .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .2-23 .. .. .. ..2-43

at Washington .. .. .. .. ...1-9 .. .. .. .4-140

at N.Y. Jets .. .. .. .. ..6-117 .. .. .. ..4-43

Pub Date: 11/03/97

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