Ravens' special teams are excelling

OWINGS MILLS - In educated football circles, one point is constantly illustrated among other gridiron mantras. <P> Special teams has to be a vital part of any winning equation.

In the case of the Baltimore Ravens, they haven't won a football game for two weeks in a row.

Yet, their slide is definitely not because of a kicking game that has consistently set up a moribund offense and an aggressive defense with top-notch field position.

"It's a complete composite," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I don't know if I can ask any more of this group."

Between the accuracy of kicker Matt Stover, the deep kickoffs of Wade Richey, the resurgence of return specialist Lamont Brightful, blocked punts, the hang time of punter Dave Zastudil and solid coverage highlighted by oversized gunner Adalius Thomas, the special teams have excelled. As Billick noted, the only glaring breakdown this fall happened on Kansas City Chiefs specialist Dante Hall's 97-yard kickoff return in a 17-10 loss in September. Hall has embarrassed a lot of teams with his elusiveness. "We set the tempo of the game," said special teams coach Gary Zauner, in his second season here after leaving the Minnesota Vikings. "When you break down the game of football, it's about who wins the battle of field position and has the least turnovers. I keep preaching to the guys to make the defense and offense's job easier."

Apparently, Zauner's units have been listening attentively to his counsel and assistant Bennie Thompson, a former Pro Bowl special teams player for Baltimore.

Stover has converted his last dozen field goals, including two in Sunday's 9-6 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Pro Player Stadium.

The veteran holdover from the original Cleveland Browns ranks third among AFC kickers in scoring with 81 points, converting 22-of-24 field goal tries and is perfect on all 15 of his extra points.

"Matt's work speaks for itself," long snapper Joe Maese said. "In every phase, guys are busting their butts. Coach Zauner is stressing discipline and technique."

Last season, Stover scored 96 points on 21-of-25 field goal accuracy. He hasn't missed an extra point since the Ravens' inaugural season in 1996. "The big thing about special teams is trust," Zastudil said. "I trust Matt to make the kick. He has to trust that I will get the ball down and place it the way he wants. The longer we're together, I think we'll do nothing but improve." Richey had four touchbacks against the Dolphins and ranks second in the league with nine. The former San Diego Charger was signed before the season to replace J.R. Jenkins.

"Ozzie Newsome told me that I had seven months to find a kickoff guy," Zauner said. "I think everybody can see how much Wade has helped our coverage."

Baltimore ranks second in the AFC in kickoff coverage with opponents' average start at their 24.4-yard line.

"Their contributions are huge," Billick said of Richey and Stover's work. "The defense loves Wade Richey."

Thomas, a 270-pound outside linebacker who doubles as a gunner on punts, is a Pro Bowl candidate in Zauner's estimation. He leads Baltimore with 18 special teams tackles. Linebacker Bart Scott, rookie safety Gerome Sapp, tight end John Jones, safety Will Demps and wedge-buster Harold Morrow are among the other coverage standouts cited by Zauner.

"This is the best kickoff team I've been a part of," Richey said. "Literally, we have 10 guys who can make tackles. I just swing it as hard as I can and kick it deep. It's a good feeling when you come off the field knowing you set the defense up.

"I like the way Zauner gives guys freedom. He trusts that they are athletic enough to make the play. It's a smart group, too."

Brightful ripped off a career-high 73-yard kickoff return against Miami to lead to a Stover field goal. The diminutive Baltimore native's job security became more assured when veteran Dedric Ward was cut this week.

Brightful is third in the AFC in kickoff return average with a 27.4 mark.

"I always stayed confident even when Ward was back there," Brightful said. "I kept my head in the game."

A fourth-round pick from last year, Zastudil averaged 46.6 yards per punt last week. He ranks eighth in the AFC with a 42.0 average, downing 14 punts inside the 20.

Reed blocked a punt against the Arizona Cardinals and scooped the football off the ground and negotiated the sideline for a touchdown. It was the third of his career. "Special teams have definitely changed games for us," Reed said. "It's about film study and expecting the unexpected. You never know who will make the next big play."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

Ravens Insider Top Stories