Special teams unit for Ravens off-key

Rebuilt group has had growing pains, allowing blocked punt, long kickoff return

September 24, 2005|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN REPORTER

Anytime there is a blocked punt and a kickoff nearly returned for a touchdown in the same game, Ravens reserve tight end Daniel Wilcox figures there will be questions about the special teams. Wilcox, now a leader on a group that may be more athletic but less experienced than in previous seasons, gives straight answers.

"It's just like being in a singing group, like The Temptations," Wilcox said. "You lose your lead singer, the new guy comes in, it's not going to sound the same. That's just kind of what's going on right now. You've got to get to know these guys, get the feel so you know when to come in and sing your part."

The Ravens lost veteran special teams players Harold Morrow, Cornell Brown, T.J. Slaughter and Musa Smith from last season - all four finishing in the top seven in tackles. Smith remains on the Ravens, but is on the physically-unable-to-perform list after breaking his leg late in the season.

It was a group that had essentially played together the previous year, but the tinkering the Ravens did on offense and defense in the offseason resulted in most of those guys leaving the team.

In their place is a group dependent on a rookie, B.J. Ward, and two veterans in Dale Carter and Tommy Polley whose previous experience in this area is limited. The confidence is still high that given time, this unit will be no less effective than in previous years.

"Yeah, last year we had a bunch of veteran guys that all came back," special teams coordinator Gary Zauner said. "Now you're missing three, four guys, and you've got to blend those guys in. There are some very good players, like B.J. Ward, who are making plays."

Although Ward may be a find as an undrafted free agent, the lapses, as generally is the case with special teams, have overshadowed otherwise sufficient play.

Matt Stover missed three field goals in the opener against the Indianapolis Colts. In the second week, the Tennessee Titans blocked a punt by Dave Zastudil in the fourth quarter, primarily because the Ravens were a man short after a breakdown on the sideline. Also, the Titans' Courtney Roby had a 59-yard kickoff return that set his team up at the 30-yard line.

Stover's shoulder-high tackle saved what would have been a touchdown.

"The guys who came down on the kickoff, they did a great job of covering that kick," Wilcox said. "The guy just made a great cut. It broke in the right hole, he hit that seam and broke it. But I think we've done great as a special teams as a whole."

Whether Stover will be needed to handle kickoffs again is a decision that should come next week.

The Ravens brought in kickoff specialists yesterday and Thursday and will make a decision whether to sign one by Wednesday. What the team will lose in tackling if a returner breaks loose without Stover, the Ravens hope to make up in height and distance on kicks, decreasing the chance of a momentum-changing return like the one by the Titans.

"I think we're all in agreement that we don't want that to go on too long because eventually for an older kicker, that will take a toll, and it might affect field goals," Zauner said of Stover's handling kickoffs.

Meanwhile, the team is writing off Zastudil's punt block as a once-in-a-season-type play.

After the Ravens were confused about who should be the up back while trying to punt from their 1-yard line, Will Demps called for the holder, rookie Matt Katula, to take what would have been a meaningless delay-of-game penalty.

"But [Katula] thought hold, hold, hold was set," Zauner said. "So he snapped the ball when Demps was trying to tell him to hold. Again now that's a rookie mistake and a veteran mistake. It's bad coaching because I didn't emphasize it enough."

But it is nothing that can't be corrected, which gives Wilcox confidence.

"We're going to be fine," Wilcox said. "Special teams is going to be a great unit. I think this might be one of our best years."

NOTES -- Outside of quarterback Kyle Boller (hyperextended toe), the Ravens have suited up everyone for the three practices during the bye week. "We anticipate going into the Jets game about 100 percent," coach Brian Billick said. ... Before the players left the training complex for two days off, Billick warned them about avoiding trouble. "They are in a predatory environment," Billick said. "It doesn't relieve them of their obligation, but there are people who know who you are and will approach you with ill will in mind. So they have to be careful they don't put themselves in that situation." ... Center Mike Flynn was excused from practice for personal reasons. Brian Rimpf worked with the starters in his place. ... Two of the Ravens' interns, Kristin Yates and Ian Wiese, will spend a week in San Antonio to help the New Orleans Saints' understaffed ticketing department.

brent.jones@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jamison Hensley contributed to this article.

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