Young players preach value of togetherness In wake of erratic '97, gaining consistency key for nearly intact group

Special teams

September 04, 1998|By Eduardo A. Encina | Eduardo A. Encina,SUN STAFF

Ravens special teams coach Scott O'Brien held his units after practice almost every day during training camp, sometimes for 30 minutes. He drilled his players relentlessly on plays and techniques, searching for what the unit lacked last year: consistency.

Practically the entire starting special teams units remain from last year, with two key newcomers, rookies Patrick Johnson and Duane Starks.

Last year's unit was filled with inexperienced players like Priest Holmes, Kenyon Cotton, Tyrus McCloud and Tyrell Peters, all of whom were rookies. Most carved a niche on the team from their special teams play in camp, but during the regular season, inconsistency and mistakes led to an erratic season.

But each player has gained a year of valuable experience, and the Ravens have a great deal of confidence in the group, considering that two draft picks, Ryan Sutter and Ron Rogers, couldn't impress enough to unseat the incumbents and were released.

"We have guys that know what to do now in comparison to last year. Guys were thinking before reacting; now they know what to do and they can just go out and get it done," said safety Bennie Thompson, the veteran of this young group who was second on the team in 1997 with 18 special teams tackles.

Yet Thompson said that the special teams' preseason showing was lacking.

"We are playing just well enough to not get beat, and that's not good enough. We want to go out there and punish people," Thompson said. "We want to go out and set the tempo. We don't want to give the other team anything, but we are just not there right now."

Other than Jermaine Lewis' 97-yard punt-return touchdown against the New York Jets, there were few preseason highlights from the units, but they remain optimistic.

"You can see us getting better day in and day out," Holmes said. "We are developing a team camaraderie and we're playing together. When you run down the field, you actually know the guys next to you know you well enough, know your moves, and we can help each other out."

Third-year man Lewis, the team's new No. 2 receiver, has developed into one of the league's best punt and kickoff returners. He led the NFL with a 15.6-yard average on punt returns last season, bringing back two for touchdowns, and returned 41 kickoffs for 905 yards (22.1 average).

Holmes, Johnson, wide receiver James Roe and running back Jay Graham also will share time returning kickoffs.

In training camp, the Ravens brought in Nelson Garner and Kyle Richardson to put the heat on kicker Matt Stover and punter Greg Montgomery, respectively, who were somewhat inconsistent in 1997. Stover missed his last five field-goal attempts, and Montgomery finished well below his career standards (42.7 yards per punt, 10th in the AFC).

Each had a successful preseason, but Richardson, who played briefly with Miami and Seattle last year, was selected over Montgomery.

New on the special teams units is Johnson, a speedy runner with big-play ability who will contribute on kickoff returns, and Starks, who will be a blocker on special teams plays.

"The new guys I think will catch on quickly," Holmes said. "I think they see the camaraderie among the veterans and they know what we're trying to get accomplished."

Scouting report

Strengths: The Ravens have a solid core of second- and third-year players to work with.

Weaknesses: Punter Kyle Richardson is inexperienced. The Ravens also have an inexperienced holder and a new long snapper.

Skinny: The key players on the unit have to be Bennie Thompson, Priest Holmes, Cornell Brown, Tyrell Peters and Tyrus McCloud.

Preseason grade: C. But the group has the ability to climb to a B.

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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