Punt teams try for leg up

titans

With the field-position battle looming large, each side is looking to pin the other's offense deep

January 10, 2009|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,bill.ordine@baltsun.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - With two of the NFL's toughest defenses and most punishing running attacks colliding in today's Ravens-Titans AFC divisional playoff game at LP Field, there might be a tendency to compare the matchup to a heavyweight brawl.

But the better comparison might be to a chess match, with both sides playing conservatively on offense, jockeying for field position and hoping to take advantage of a mistake by the other.

As a result, the punt teams on either side could wind up being the deciding factor, such as last weekend, when San Diego punter Mike Scifres hamstrung the high-powered Indianapolis offense with precision kicking in the Chargers' 23-17 overtime playoff win over the Colts.

"Our team is based on field position," Tennessee punter Craig Hentrich said. "If I can pin the opposition inside the 10- or 15-yard line, our defense has a pretty good chance, so we've been pretty good at that all year.

"It's going to be the same for [the Raven]. Their defense is the strength of their team, and if their punter is able to pin us back, there are going to be problems. Just like any other game, field position is going to be the key part."

The matchup between Hentrich and Ravens punter Sam Koch is a good one. Koch had a 45-yard gross average and 39.9 net average this season, and he was outstanding with his punts into the red zone, leading the NFL with 18 inside the 10-yard line.

Hentrich has a 42.8-yard gross average and 36.5 net for the season, and he has an interesting weapon in his arsenal, a tricky-to-handle knuckle-ball punt he uses when he's kicking downwind or into the opponent's red zone. He hasn't gotten a returner to drop one of the knucklers this year, but it remains effective.

"It seems like when I've hit a good one," Hentrich said, "guys have tended to call fair catch and run away, which is good for us because those kind of punts have a tendency to take the nice soft bounces and we're able to pin people deep - so it makes the boring pooch punt a little more interesting."

Since the last time the Titans and Ravens played in October, when Tennessee won, 13-10, the Ravens have made Jim Leonhard their full-time punt returner, and Hentrich has noticed. Leonhard had an average of 11.6 yards in the regular season, sixth best in the NFL.

"He catches the ball well, he picks his hole and he hits it hard," Hentrich said of Leonhard.

In that regular-season game, the Ravens' coverage teams gave up 110 return yards, significant real estate considering the Titans' offense managed just 210 yards.

Tennessee returner Chris Carr, who accounted for 82 yards on a punt and a kickoff return, said that since then, the Ravens' coverage teams have tightened up and Ravens kickoff specialist Steve Hauschka has been booming his kicks into the end zone for touchbacks.

"Whenever you have two great defenses, you want to be able to flip the field and put your offense at an advantage so even if your offense winds up punting, they're punting into the other team's red zone and you pin them in deep," said Carr, a dual-purpose returner who averages 10.1 yards on punt returns and 28.1 on kickoff returns.

"That's what you want, you want to be able to put points on the board. But even if you have a big return that doesn't get the points, you want to get the edge in field position."

Note: : Titans All-Pro center Kevin Mawae (elbow) won't play today. Second-year lineman Leroy Harris will start his second straight game and his first playoff contest.

Reserve defensive end Dave Ball (back) also will be out for today's game.

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