Ravens' special teams had a rough month

OWINGS MILLS - The Baltimore Ravens are willing to chalk up a bushel of special-teams breakdowns as a symptom of the preseason rather than a glaring problem. Because personnel is mixed and matched while many of the regulars are resting, the coaching staff and executives will allow somewhat of a mulligan.

Injuries that limited punter Dave Zastudil to one game and return specialist Lamont Brightful to two affected the continuity, too.

"The thing about the preseason is you're out there and you're trying to evaluate a lot of players," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "You don't want your core guys that are going to be our No. 1 special teams guys to play a lot because you're trying to get them some reps on offense and defense. "As you've seen throughout the whole league, there have been a lot of punt returns, a lot of blocked punts and that happens because you've got a bunch of guys that are coming out of college that have never played on special teams before and are just learning the craft."

However, the miscues committed by Baltimore and general lack of consistency over the entire month of August did signal something of a troubling trend.

Between allowing the Buffalo Bills' Antonio Brown to scoot 87 yards on a punt return for the game-winning touchdown to open the preseason and a sloppy evening in the preseason finale against the New York Giants, it was a rough month for special teams coach Gary Zauner's group.

In a 30-24 loss to the Giants on Thursday, Baltimore experienced virtually every variety of special teams mistake while committing six turnovers to the Giants' one. Five of the turnovers led to 23 points as the Ravens squandered a 17-0 lead gained primarily by their starters.

Cornerback Airabin Justin failed to get out of the way of a punt and it deflected off his foot to give the Giants the football in Ravens territory. Justin was cut this weekend.

Running back Chester Taylor, the Ravens' primary kick returner, fumbled a kickoff that took an awkward hop on the artificial turf directly in front of him.

Zastudil had a partially blocked punt that sailed 21 yards returned 16 yards to the Ravens' 32 to set up another score.

There was also a fumbled punt by running back Ryan Brewer, which isn't a cause for concern since he's no longer on the football team.

"There were obviously some things that went on that need to be corrected and they will be corrected in different ways," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

There were bright spots, though.

Zastudil didn't aggravate a hamstring he strained during camp in his preseason debut, averaging 30.1 yards on three punts. As a rookie last year, Zastudil averaged 41.6 yards and tied for second in the league with 31 punts downed inside the 20.

Kickoff specialist Wade Richey looks like a solid acquisition. His first four kickoffs against New York traveled to the Giants' 2-, 3-, 13- and 1-yard lines

Designated wedge-buster Harold Morrow is relatively healthy again after spraining a knee early in camp.

The Giants kept holding safety Ed Reed, who blocked two punts last season, to prevent him from blocking their punt every time.

Last season, Baltimore scored four touchdowns on special teams in Zauner's first year on the staff after eight successful years with the Minnesota Vikings.

Veteran kicker Matt Stover had to work with a different holder, punter Derrick Frost, for three preseason games while Zastudil was out and adjust to a new surface at M&T Bank Stadium. He converted 5-of-6 extra points and 4-of-6 field goals in August.

"Once the regular season starts, you'll probably still see some miscues early, but then things level themselves out because guys will get used to their roles and start performing better in them," Newsome said.

Meanwhile, Brightful, who fumbled away a punt in a 24-3 loss to the Washington Redskins in the third preseason game, had returns of 16 and 19 yards against New York. Last season, Brightful had a 95-yard punt return for a score and average 16.1 yards per return. He has to keep securing the football, though. "I just have to concentrate harder," Brightful said. "I can't relax. Even though it was the preseason, that's not the way we want to play football. We have to clean things up."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

Ravens Insider Top Stories