Dropping the ball

Ravens returner Figurs says problems with fumbles `more of a mental thing'

October 31, 2007|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,Sun reporter

Watch the football. Guide the ball into the hands. Wait for the blocks to set up. Find a hole. Get upfield and - if possible - score a touchdown.

That's the checklist Ravens return specialist Yamon Figurs must run through in his mind on every kickoff and punt he corrals.

It's a daunting inventory that becomes more urgent when Figurs adds the most important task: hanging on to the football.

Seven games into his rookie season, Figurs has three fumbles, losing one in a 27-13 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 30.

In the Ravens' 19-14 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 21, he misplayed two kickoffs and fumbled a punt on the final play of the game.

Figurs said he understands his primary objective.

"You've always got to protect that ball," he said Monday after the team returned from its Week 8 bye. "It's the NFL. They're always coming for it. It's a couple plays where I think I'm going to break, and I relax and I loosen up a little bit. It's not physical. It's more of a mental thing. I've just got to focus more."

Coach Brian Billick also cited concentration as the key to Figurs' ability to secure the ball.

"It's just a matter of focus and recognizing that you've got to play to your strengths," Billick said yesterday. "He understands what the fundamentals are in terms of squaring up to the ball, where the positioning of his hands needs to be, how he needs to secure the ball. He's been doing that since he's played this game. It's just a matter of keeping that focus."

When the Ravens selected Figurs from Kansas State in the third round of April's draft, experts viewed him as potentially the next Devin Hester. And though Figurs has shown the speed to earn a comparison to the Chicago Bears star, he also has been dogged by ball-security concerns.

B.J. Sams, whom Figurs replaced earlier this season, fumbled five times in his rookie season of 2004, but didn't fumble the next two seasons. Cory Ross, who filled in for Sams when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2006, fumbled once.

Figurs said most of the fumbles occurred when he sprinted to a hole before securing the ball. The lost fumble against the Browns was caused by a strip by former Raven Darnell Dinkins, but the others were borne out of excitement.

"When you've seen me fumble the ball, it was more of me relaxing and trying to open up to make something happen," Figurs said. "You have to protect the ball no matter what you're doing."

Ross said he can empathize with Figurs' enthusiasm.

"Being young, you're just so excited to make a play," Ross said. "Once you get that excited - like I have been - you just want to do something so bad and you want to make something happen, and that's when you forget the fundamentals. That's probably what happened. Once he lets the game come to him, he should have no problem."

Figurs, who can be his harshest critic, said he tucked the ball away in an exaggerated form to eliminate the fumbles.

That works, but he sacrifices the speed to escape defenders.

"When it happens, you go back to protecting the ball, and you're more protective," he said. "It's about me being a rookie. It's something I've got to adapt to and just get ready for."

For all of the consternation about his ability to protect the ball, Figurs is one of the league's best returners this season. Among players with at least 10 kickoff returns, he's third with a 29.9-yard average.

Among those with at least eight punt returns, he's seventh with a 12.0 average.

Figurs said he knows expectations were set when he returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 23.

But rather than back down from those expectations, Figurs has embraced them.

"Nobody's expectations are higher than mine," he said. "They drafted me to return, and that's what I'm supposed to do. So I've got to do my job."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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