Sams, Sanders may bring back excitement, too

Special teams: The Ravens' punt and kickoff return games could be revived by a pair of flashy players -- rookie B.J. Sams and Deion Sanders.

Nfl Preview 2004

The Ravens

September 09, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

The best way to judge how important a dangerous return specialist is for the Ravens is to take a little history lesson.

In the eight seasons since the franchise arrived from Cleveland, the Ravens have had eight punt returns for touchdowns (including two in a game twice) and gone 5-1 in those games.

The change to shifty rookie B.J. Sams and the arrival of Deion Sanders, who has some of the most spectacular returns in NFL history, could help revive a position that has kept the Ravens on edge the past couple seasons.

Return specialist Lamont Brightful was cut last week because of a fumbling problem, leaving the duties to an undrafted player in Sams and one who might be the oldest punt returner in the league in Sanders, 37.

Yet the Ravens feel this is the most competent they have been in the return game since Jermaine Lewis left after the 2001 season. With Sanders, who has six career high-stepping punt returns for touchdowns, they certainly are poised to be the most entertaining.

"I want them [the Ravens] to get everything," Sanders said, referring to his punt-return skills as well as duty as the team's fifth defensive back.

Special teams coordinator Gary Zauner said, "Lamont Brightful did a great job on kickoff returns. His shortcomings were his sure-handedness in fielding punts and trying to make the first guy miss.

"Deion's history shows he can make guys miss. This new kid is a great punt catcher, and when I saw him in college, he was very good at following his blockers and making one or two guys miss."

Lewis excelled at that, too. He had seven punt-return touchdowns for the Ravens and an 84-yard kickoff-return touchdown in the Super Bowl win over the New York Giants in January 2001.

With so many similarities drawn between that team and this year's Ravens, coaches are looking to manufacture the same type of success on special teams. Lewis led the league in 2000 with a 16.1-yard punt-return average.

"A two-plus ratio in turnovers and/or big plays is a huge determinant in winning," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It always has been. The return game factors into that.

"It was clearly a pivotal dimension in our 2000 championship year. You had a profile of a good defense, running the ball well, making some big plays offensively, and I don't know how many big plays by Jermaine Lewis. So that cumulative effect is what made that team a champion."

Sams, 5 feet 10, 185 pounds, is about the same size as Lewis and has shown some of the same elusiveness, too.

He returned the first ball he ever touched as a Raven 89 yards for a touchdown in the third preseason game, but the play was nullified because of a running-into-the-punter penalty. Still, Sams showed enough skill to vault to the top of the depth chart.

At McNeese State, Sams had three punt returns for touchdowns in 48 career games.

Here's his favorite:

"Against Western Kentucky during the regular season, I returned a punt [59 yards for a touchdown]," Sams said. "I also had 316 all-purpose yards. But we were 0-0, and that return sparked us up. It was the end of the first quarter, and after that we just ran away with the game, 35-14.

"When I was able to do that, everybody had confidence and faith in me. And every time I went out there on the field, they knew something exciting was going to happen."

Sams also returned kickoffs, averaging 24.6 yards. He eventually might split time with Sanders on punts, but he will be the sole kickoff returner on a team that has had three returns for touchdowns since 1996.

The Ravens are 6-2 when they have had punt or kickoff returns for touchdowns, a percentage coaches feel is right around the league average.

"If you get a great return guy and get a long return or a touchdown, it breaks their back," Zauner said. "Look what happened with us against Kansas City [last season]. It was an even game until Dante Hall's kickoff."

Hall serves as a good case study. He is widely thought of as the top returner in the league, and the Chiefs were 4-1 when Hall had touchdown returns last year, including a game-winning kickoff return against the Ravens.

Returns for touchdowns are rare -- only 13 occurred during the regular season in the AFC last season -- but with the new arrivals, the Ravens feel like they can be one of the league leaders again.

"You always hear players or coaches saying, `Somebody make a play,' and when that happens, that's dramatic," Billick said. "It's probably as dramatic a thing as can happen on the field that can turn the game."

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