A very special project Ravens: Blending the recklessness of youth and the savvy of experience into a kamikaze crew is no small task for special teams coach Scott O'Brien.

August 07, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

One glaring mistake was all Tyrell Peters needed to realize the importance of special teams in the NFL.

Trailing San Diego last Sept. 28, the Ravens received a second-half kickoff. Jermaine Lewis sped in and out of traffic on the right sideline, beating several defenders en route to a game-turning touchdown -- which was followed by a momentum-killing penalty flag.

Peters, called for clipping on the play, recalled the sting of that moment.

"I won't forget it. I think I took it harder than anyone else, and I learned from that mistake," said Peters, a second-year linebacker who played in four games before being waived and eventually signed to the Ravens' practice roster.

"I've learned a lot in terms of what it takes to make it in the NFL," he added. "I didn't play that much special teams in college [at Oklahoma]. I was a leader on the defense. Now I know in order for me to make a team, I have to play a big part on special teams. Here, special teams is my job."

At training camp in Westminster, Ravens special teams coach Scott O'Brien has many jobs:

Assemble the best coverage and return teams on punts and kickoffs he can, by finding the right blend of young players to complement stalwarts like Bennie Thompson, Tony Vinson and Donny Brady.

Get more consistent production out of kicker Matt Stover, especially in the clutch.

Help punter Greg Montgomery reverse an inconsistent 1997 season.

Create enough room for Jermaine Lewis to remain one of the league's most dangerous return men.

O'Brien, whose plans have been disrupted by injuries to Vinson (shoulder dislocation) and Brady (knee), is breathing easier this summer.

Familiarity will do that for a coach. A year ago, O'Brien was working with a host of new faces, whose performances gave the Ravens' special teams wild fluctuations in field position.

With rookies like Tyrus McCloud, Cornell Brown, Priest Holmes, Kenyon Cotton, John Williams, Kim Herring and Peters running on punt and kickoff teams, the Ravens ranked 27th of the 30 NFL teams in kickoff return average, and 20th in yardage allowed on kickoff returns.

Then again, the speed and elusiveness of Lewis gave the Ravens an excellent punt return unit for most of the year. Lewis, who missed five games due to injuries, still led the NFL with a 15.6-yard average, including two touchdowns.

All those faces are back. And, judging by the crisp nature of special teams drills in training camp, the worst days are behind them.

"You're always building chemistry and continuity, and this year we're starting to have that," O'Brien said. "They've played together for a year. Obviously, they had some growing pains, and they learned from them. Now, those same rookies from last year are pushing other people to play this year."

"We're a lot further ahead in the kicking game than we were at this time last year," said Thompson, who remains the heart and soul of the special teams. "Guys are accepting their roles more now. Last year, guys like Tyrus McCloud were moping around about having to do it. Now, guys like Tyrus and Cornell Brown have worked together all this time, and they all want to do it."

Much of the coverage and return units' success depends on the health of Vinson and Brady. Vinson, out for at least three more weeks, made the team in 1997 because of his fine special teams work. Brady, benched early last year at cornerback, embraced his other job and overtook Thompson as special teams tackles leader. Brady is nearly ready to return from a knee injury suffered during the first workout at camp.

O'Brien's biggest challenges involve Montgomery's punting and the kickoff coverage team. Montgomery started slowly last year, had a few bright spots later, but never approached his 1996 performance. He finished with a 42.7-yard punting average, 10th in the AFC.

The kickoff coverage team allowed far too many generous returns. Remember Will Blackwell's 97-yard touchdown that started a disastrous second half in the Ravens' come-from-ahead, 42-34 loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 5?

"Our kickoff coverage has to be more consistent this season. We were either boom or bust, and that's with Matt Stover having his best statistical year with kickoffs," O'Brien said.

"Mentally, Montgomery has been very good. He still needs to get the ball off quicker and get more consistent hang times. He has some decent competition here [in Kyle Richardson]."

Thompson likes the maturity and the additional speed he sees. Lewis has some eye-catching company in camp, like rookie receiver Patrick Johnson and recently-acquired Tyrone Hughes, who established himself as a kick return threat in previous seasons with New Orleans.

"We could be very effective," Thompson said. "I can see us

having one of the top five special teams groups in the league."

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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