Ravens' special teams struggling

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens' contagious epidemic of miscues has also infected the usually stalwart special teams. Contributing to an 0-2 start: a blocked punt for a safety, three missed field goals and opposing kick returners averaging 29.5 yards per return. After experiencing more volatile change than the rest of the roster, the majority of the mistakes are being attributed to inexperience and unfamiliarity.

"I would dare someone to go down the line and find the kind of talent we have across the board on special teams, but we still have to gel," linebacker Bart Scott said. "Even the years we had good special teams, which is still to be determined this year, it took us time to get into the flow. Watch, because we're going to be very good on special teams."

One theory on why the Ravens don't look as crisp in the kicking game is because they are initiating new personnel into roles once filled by solid veterans. Gone from last year's group are long snapper Joe Maese, return specialist Wade Richey, linebackers T.J. Slaughter and Cornell Brown, injured running back Musa Smith and fullback Harold Morrow, a designated wedge-buster.

They have been replaced by promising newcomers like rookie safety B.J. Ward and long snapper Matt Katula. Plus, Scott, linebacker Adalius Thomas (a 2003 Pro Bowl selection) and tight end Daniel Wilcox are mainstays for a group that has added linebacker Tommy Polley and nickel back Dale Carter.

"We lost some key guys," Wilcox said. "It's just like if the offense lost Jamal Lewis or Todd Heap, they would be hard to replace. We've got guys like B.J. Ward who are making a lot of plays. It just takes time."
Veteran kicker Matt Stover delivered a touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff in a 25-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans, flinging Courtney Roby to the ground at the Ravens' 30.

The Ravens signed kickoff specialist Aaron Elling, a former Minnesota Viking who scored 102 points in 2003, to add hang time and rest Stover, who missed three field goals against the Indianapolis Colts to open the season. To make room for Elling on the roster, Baltimore released linebacker Jim Nelson.

The Ravens rank second-to-last in the NFL in average field position allowed on kickoffs with opponents starting their average drive at their own 34.8. The league average is 26.1.

"On that one big kickoff we gave up, it was something in our scheme and we made adjustments to counter what happened," Scott said. "That will happen sometimes."

Against the Colts, return specialist B.J. Sams returned a punt 89 yards. The return was negated by a penalty, though.

"We saw our potential in that first game, but we have had some tough breaks with big plays negated by penalties," Scott said. "Discipline is something that has to be there."

Sams is averaging 9.3 yards per punt return, ranking fifth in the AFC and eighth in the NFL. The Ravens' average field position on kickoffs is its own 26, ranking 10th in the AFC.

"One big runback on special teams can change a whole game around," Sams said.

With the blocked punt for the safety, punter Dave Zastudil is averaging 41.4 yards, 36.9 net. However, he has only downed one punt inside the 20 and has no touchbacks on 13 punts. The blocked punt against the Titans was attributed to a communications breakdown between Katula and safety Will Demps.

One of the most accurate kickers in league history with an 82.2 percent conversion rate, Stover rebounded from a dreadful first week to connect on his only field goal attempt against the Titans.

"We're definitely on the verge," Wilcox said. "We've had a couple of bad things happen, but besides that it was good. Once you click on special teams, you keep clicking. We're going to be fine."

NOTES: Linebacker Adalius Thomas received the first annual humanitarian award from U.S. Representative Danny K. Davis of Illinois at the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Weekend. … Tight end Darnell Dinkins announced a season-long partnership with Thurgood Marshall High School. … Long snapper Matt Katula helped refurbish a home in the Sandtown community.

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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