Ravens have turned their return game into an art form

Jacoby Jones' punt return TD in Pittsburgh highlighted the improvement the team has made on special teams

November 24, 2012|By Matt Vensel, The Baltimore Sun

To hear Jerry Rosburg describe it, it was just like listening to Beethoven tickle the ivories or watching Monet flick the final brushstrokes as the paint was drying on canvas.

When Jacoby Jones fielded a punt in the first quarter of last Sunday's 13-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers and weaved his way to the end zone, Rosburg, the Ravens' special teams coordinator since 2008, felt he was witnessing the making of a different kind of masterpiece.

"When you see those returns come together like they have, it's a thing of beauty — it's art," he said.

Rosburg has orchestrated three touchdown returns in the past five weeks (a fourth Sunday against the Chargers in San Diego would tie a single-season team record), all of which were scored by Jones. But the long, harmonious returns are less symphonies or impressionist paintings than they are choreographed dance routines — ones executed between chaos and high-speed collisions.

However you choose to describe the performances of the Ravens on special teams — the often underappreciated third phase of the game that they aggressively addressed in the offseason — there is no questioning the impact of their return game. Return touchdowns altered the outcome of two of their wins, and, led by Jones,their kick and punt return teams are among the league's best.

That game-changing, 63-yard punt return in Pittsburgh told the story of a rejuvenated Ravens unit.

Getting started

With the Ravens trailing, 7-3, in the first quarter, Steelers punter Drew Butler boomed a punt from inside his 5-yard line. As the ball soared into the night sky, the Ravens put a "vice" on both Steelers gunners, double-teaming the one on each side. On the left sideline, defensive backs Chykie Brown and Anthony Levine manhandled their gunner, steering him into the middle of the field.

A year ago, Brown was one of a handful of young Ravens who stumbled while finding their way on special teams, especially because the lockout robbed them of a full offseason to learn its nuances.

As a result, the Ravens' struggles on special teams extended beyond the right foot of Billy Cundiff. They allowed three return touchdowns last season, and their coverage units were in the bottom third of the NFL. They scored on a punt return but otherwise produced few big returns.

But this year, players such as Brown, running back Anthony Allen and linebacker Josh Bynes are thriving in roles on special teams.

"Now I think guys are realizing they can play special teams, and if they do well, they can play for a long time and make a good living for themselves," linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said.

As Brown and Levien sidetracked the gunner on the left, Jones, who is making a fine living and plenty of highlight reels as a return specialist, caught Butler's punt at the Ravens' 37-yard line.

With plenty of running room, Jones took a few quick steps diagonally toward the left pylon before jamming his left cleat into the grass and accelerating straight up the field.

John Brenkus, the host of ESPN's "Sports Science," said Jones experienced three Gs of force while swerving into his cut — the equivalent of a NASCAR driver cornering at top speed.

"The more you are going vertically up the field, the faster you are passing everybody," Brenkus said.

Jones was about to pass 11 Steelers and a few difference-makers the Ravens signed this spring.

Making an impact

In the span of about a second and a half, Jones blew by six Steelers, but there was a reason that none were roadblocks in his path. He got key blocks downfield, including ones from a pair of newcomers, as the Ravens built a tunnel for him to sprint through.

This spring, coach John Harbaugh spoke openly about the need to get better on special teams. So the Ravens signed Jones, who doubles as their third wide receiver, to a two-year, $7 million contract. They lured cornerback Corey Graham, who was a Pro Bowl special teams player with the Chicago Bears, to Baltimore with a two-year, $3.7 million deal. They got the services of safeties Sean Considine and James Ihedigbo for a combined $1.525 million this season. And they brought back Ayanbadejo, their special teams captain from a season ago, for $3.2 million over three years.

"We kind of put our money where our mouth is this year and went out and got the top talent that was available," Ayanbadejo said.

The first and perhaps most important block on this return was laid by Considine, who raced down the field and got position on Steelers safety Ryan Mundy, allowing Jones to run behind him.

"We watch so much film, I could have told you ahead of time that I would end up blocking No. 29 for the Steelers," Considine said.

The final block was laid by Ihedigbo, who rushed the punt from the right side to force a kick to the left, then peeled back to left sideline to pick off any unblocked Steelers. He found one and put him on his back with a hit that Brenkus said might have exceeded 3,000 pounds of force.

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