Something special arrives for Ravens Special teams step up after a rough start

December 04, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Donny Brady sat in front of his locker, watching his special teams cohorts with a sense of amusement.

There was vociferous captain Bennie Thompson, continuing his daily, playful ritual of taunting reporters and teammates alike. There was sudden kickoff return sensation Corey Harris, dyed blond hair and all, fielding interviews as smoothly as he has sliced through coverage units in recent weeks. Punt return man Jermaine Lewis, the quiet man of the trio, laughed as he took in the scene.

No one is laughing at the Ravens' special teams anymore. No longer are they a mistake waiting to happen, not after two straight weeks of near-perfection. Between the strong return and coverage teams and the effective work of kicker Matt Stover and punter Kyle Richardson, the Ravens have arrived.

"It's been a long time coming," Brady said. "We started out slowly, but we've finally settled down. We all bring a little something different to the table. When you mix it up, it's a nice group of guys who go out there and try to make something happen. We've got too many strengths to keep making all of those mistakes."

When it comes to Ravens special teams, the confidence is back. That's what happens after a game like Sunday's 38-31 victory over Indianapolis, in which the Ravens staged a comeback by establishing great field position.

Harris, a journeyman defensive back signed as insurance in late August, supplied the hottest spark with kickoff returns of 55, 49 and 47 yards, setting up 13 points. Thompson added fuel by recording two more tackles in kickoff coverage on a day when the Ravens constantly pinned the Colts inside their 25. Stover iced the deal by hitting three field goals -- each over 40 yards -- in three attempts.

The special teams committed only one penalty that day. Only one has been called against them in the past two weeks.

"I'm taking the strike force to dinner," said Harris, referring to his 10 blockers. "And if I break one [for a touchdown], I think I'm going to give up the ball and stop [returning kickoffs]. I'm real comfortable with these guys right now."

The special teams began the year on an unforgettably bad note.

Who can forget the errant long and short snaps of Harper Le Bel that contributed to a botched punt and three missed Stover field goals that helped ruin the season opener against Pittsburgh? Or the missed block by Le Bel that led to a costly blocked punt in a later loss to Tennessee?

Or the parade of untimely penalties that erased good plays throughout the season's first half? Or the long kickoff return that an opponent seemed to break off in each game? It seemed as though only Lewis saved the day with an occasional electrifying punt return.

Now, Lewis is down with a severely sprained ankle, but the special teams have never been healthier in 1998.

"We've always worked hard and spent the time on special teams, yet we continued to make mistakes early," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said. "Special teams have played a big part in us winning over the last four weeks. We're not going to score 38 points unless we've got good field position. We're just not going to drive for touchdowns from our 20 that often. Nobody is. Field position is the name of the game."

The Ravens are playing that game properly these days. The second-leading kickoff return man in the NFL is Harris, who is averaging 27.6 yards on 20 kickoff returns. Lewis remains second in the AFC with a 12.8-yard punt return average and two touchdowns. And if Thompson isn't crashing through a double team to stuff an opponent's return man or making a key block, someone like Brady or John Williams or Cornell Brown is doing it.

"It's not like [special teams coach] Scotty O'Brien wasn't preparing the guys," Stover said. "I've been around him for eight years, and I've been part of very good special teams. Nobody has more knowledge of an opponent than Scotty. He's not doing anything different. It was up to the guys to execute, and we're doing that now."

Stover is doing his part, thanks largely to the presence of veteran snapper Brian Kinchen and Richardson, whose holding has improved greatly. Stover has made nine consecutive field goals and has converted nine of his last 11 from beyond 40 yards.

"Guys are understanding how special teams can win or lose a football game," Thompson said. "We're still being aggressive, but we're not getting penalties because we're playing smarter. We've really come together."

Pub Date: 12/04/98

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