Like many of his colleagues, Ravens coach John Harbaugh is leery about drawing conclusions about his team after reaching the quarter pole of the 2012 campaign. But after watching the Ravens make improvements across the board in nearly every special teams category, Harbaugh is cautiously optimistic about what he has seen on the field.
"I think we have a chance to be really good on special teams this year," he said. "We have good players and they're well-coached, and I'm looking forward to that. But we'll just have to see. … I think that remains to be seen in all honesty. I'm hopeful that we're having this conversation in a few weeks. We're just starting. We haven't done anything that great."
So far, there's a lot to be pleased about regarding special teams. Rookie kicker Justin Tucker has connected on 8 of 9 field goals — pushing a 47-yarder wide right in Thursday night's 23-16 victory over the Cleveland Browns — and he converted the game-winning 27-yarder in last Sunday night's 31-30 win against the New England Patriots.
Jacoby Jones, a free-agent acquisition from the Houston Texans, is averaging 8.9 yards on seven punt returns, rookie Deonte Thompson ranks 11th in the NFL with a 25.9-yard average on kick returns and punter Sam Koch is averaging a career-best 46.8 yards thus far.
But the greatest strides have taken place in the coverage units. After equaling a franchise low by allowing three returns for touchdowns in 2011 — including a 107-yard kick return to the New York Jets' Joe McKnight in the fourth game of the season — the Ravens have not surrendered a return for a score.
Opponents averaged 29.2 yards per kick return last year, which ranked as the second-highest total in the NFL. The team also surrendered 11.9 yards per punt return, the ninth-highest average.
After Thursday night, opponents averaged 20.4 yards per kick return, which is the eighth-lowest average in the league. The unit also allowed 11.8 yards per punt return, which is tied for 22nd.
Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who has earned three Pro Bowl invitations for his prowess on special teams, said unlike last year when the lockout eliminated the entire offseason, the players had an opportunity this past spring and summer to hone their techniques and absorb the coaches' teachings.
"We had an offseason to prepare and get guys together on the same accord," he said. "So it's a matter of better players and more preparation. We didn't have time to prepare last year with the lockout and everything."
Several players have credited cornerback Corey Graham and safeties Sean Considine and James Ihedigbo for infusing special teams with a new sense of determination. Graham, who is tied for second with two special teams tackles, has manned one gunner position on punts, while Considine and Ihedigbo have flourished in their roles as the protector on punts.
Graham said when he joined the Ravens from the Chicago Bears in March, he understood from special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg how much the team wanted to improve its coverage units.
"Coach really puts a big emphasis on covering, and that's part of the game," Graham said. "If you can't stop guys from scoring on special teams, you hurt your team a lot. So he put a big emphasis on that in the offseason, and we've done a decent job so far, but we feel like we can still do a lot better in that area."
Ayanbadejo is tied for the team lead in stops on special teams with three, but the biggest surprise is that he is tied with cornerback Chykie Brown in that department. Brown, who was drafted in the fifth round last year, is one of the younger players who has embraced his role on special teams.
"The difference between this year and last year is I approached the game more seriously," said Brown, who was inactive for nine games and finished with just one special teams tackle. "Because of the lockout, I didn't have time to approach the game with OTAs to get into shape. But now I'm playing more with stuff that I learned that I didn't get to learn last year. I don't get on defense. So I've got to make my name somehow, and I'm going to do it on special teams until my number gets called on defense."
The coverage units have been aided by Koch and Tucker. Koch is getting greater lift on his punts, and that extended hang time allows his teammates to run down the field and bottle up the opposing punt returner.
"In the last game, I had more hang time over five seconds than I did in probably all of last year," Koch said prior to Thursday night. "It's something I've strived to improve this offseason, and I feel like I've done it. Now I've just got to go out there and do it each and every game."
With three touchbacks against the Browns, Tucker leads the NFL in that category with 16. Kicking the ball out of the end zone is just as valuable as pinning a kick returner deep, he said.
"The goal is to get touchbacks, and what that entails for me is kicking the ball as hard as I can and as far as I can," Tucker said. "With all that considered, if someone wants to bring it out from eight or nine deep, we have the guys to make those plays when we need them. But my job is to kick it as far as I can."
The improvement in the coverage units should bring a significant amount of satisfaction to Harbaugh and Rosburg, but Rosburg said the final word won't be determined until season's end.
"We want to just keep playing and win games, and when it's all over, we'll look back and see how it all panned out statistically and any other way," he said. "But now is not the time to be analyzing. We don't want to analyze performance when we're in the middle of it because we're just getting started."
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