Ravens notebook: special teams on the upswing

OWINGS MILLS -- In the span of a few weeks, the Baltimore Ravens' resurgent special teams has gone from dazed and confused to rank atop the AFC. Following return specialist B.J. Sams' season-long 51-yard punt return in a 16-3 win over the Cleveland Browns, he's the top-ranked punt returner in the AFC with a 13.1 average.

"I think we've gotten into a rhythm with him," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's got some opportunities, and it's a big part of the field-position battle with us."

For the first couple of games, Sams appeared indecisive on returns. He was often a block or two away from springing a major return, but didn't always make the correct reads and decisions.

"We knew we were due," linebacker Bart Scott said. "We were real close to making that big play, getting that block, making that cut. It's clicking now."

The entire special teams has rebounded from a terrible start.

Veteran kicker Matt Stover missed his first three field goals in the season opener, but has converted his last seven kicks.

Since having a punt blocked in a loss to the Tennessee Titans for a safety, punter Dave Zastudil averaged 47.6 yards last week. He's averaging a career-high 43.4 yards.

The punt coverage ranks first in the AFC, allowing a net punt return average of 8.7 yards. On kickoffs, Baltimore's opponents are starting at their own 22.

The Ravens had to replace several veterans from last year's team, including Harold Morrow, Cornell Brown, T.J. Slaughter and Musa Smith, who remains on the physically unable to perform list. This year's standouts include Scott, Daniel Wilcox, Adalius Thomas, Ovie Mughelli, Darnell Dinkins and B.J. Ward.

"We had to adapt to a lot of change," Scott said. "We just have to stay hungry and keep it up."

WHO'S THE BEST?: The Chicago Bears are honoring their legendary 1985 team Sunday at Soldier Field, prompting questions about whether the 2000 Ravens' defense led by Ray Lewis was superior to the Bears' defense headlined by Mike Singletary.

Billick is admittedly biased, declaring the Ravens' defense of five years ago as the best ever.

"That's one of those great arguments that you can sit around the bar and dog-cuss one another," Billick said.

Billick's logic in the debate is based on winning a Super Bowl and setting the record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game regular season. The 1985 Bears won the Super Bowl, but didn't set the record for points surrendered until a year later when they didn't repeat as champions.

"The criteria that was given to me was, ‘Break the record and win the Super Bowl,'" Billick said. "That's exactly what we did. By that measurement, I think I win the argument. At least in Baltimore."

It was pointed out to Billick, though, that the Ravens never had a music video unlike the Bears' immortal, rhythm-challenged ‘Super Bowl Shuffle.'

"We didn't have a dance video," Billick said. "That's the one thing we didn't have."

TRAINING ROOM: Safety Ed Reed (ankle) didn't practice and has been all but officially ruled out for Sunday.

"It's progressing, but he won't be available for this weekend," Billick said.

Wide receiver Mark Clayton (ankle) and Mughelli (ankle) didn't practice and are unlikely for Sunday. Both are listed as questionable.

"He's progressing much quicker, but he's doubtful," Billick said of Clayton.

Fullback Alan Ricard (calf) practiced, but is still listed as questionable and will be a game-time decision.

Quarterback Kyle Boller didn't practice and is dealing with soreness after practicing Wednesday for the first time since hyperextending his right big toe. It's unclear whether he'll be available to be the third quarterback next week against Pittsburgh.

"The test will be next week," Billick said.

ROSTER MOVE: The Ravens signed rookie wide receiver Brian Bratton (Furman) to the practice squad, and waived defensive end Darrell Lee from the practice squad.

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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