Ravens scrambling to fill Sams' spot

OWINGS MILLS -- In the wake of return specialist B.J. Sams being out for the season with a fractured right ankle, the Baltimore Ravens acknowledged Monday that it's going to take more than one individual to fill his cleats. Undrafted rookie running back Cory Ross will handle kickoff returns, and starting wide receiver Mark Clayton and nickel back Corey Ivy will share punt return duties.

With Sams placed on injured reserve Monday after getting injured during the Ravens' 13-7 loss Thursday to the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore (9-3) is searching for a way to maintain its edge in the return game. Prior to his injury, Sams was the fifth-ranked kickoff returner and seventh-ranked punt returner in the league.
"Beyond what it does for the team, sometimes life isn't fair," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "B.J. was having such a great year."
Ross, a 5-foot-6, 201-pounder from Nebraska, was impressive during the preseason as a return specialist, but not enough to unseat Sams. Ross caught 43 passes for three touchdowns as a senior and led the Cornhuskers with 882 rushing yards.
Ross is listed atop the depth chart for kickoffs and Clayton is listed second behind Ivy for punt returns. Ivy fumbled a punt against the Bengals, returning two for seven yards.
"We've been anxious to get Cory up and we have a great deal of faith in what he'll be able to do for us, particularly on kickoff returns," Billick said. "Mark has been working at it all year long. He will bring a certain element of explosiveness as well. We're getting to the point where that could be very valuable to us."
However, exposing Clayton to undue danger on punt returns is a concern. Last year's first-round draft pick has caught 52 passes to generate a team-high 651 yards with three touchdown catches.
"You're getting to the point now where the season has some real definition to it," Billick said. "You're willing to press yourself a little bit more. You don't want to leave yourself vulnerable by putting a Mark Clayton out there, and now what does it do to your receiving corps.
"We don't want to lose Mark, trust me. You've got to use your best people, and we're going to continue to do that."
Ross, who was inactive for the first dozen games, appeared to be a natural at returning kicks this summer after not doing much of that in college. Plus, he answered questions about his lack of size, showing his durability by bouncing up after a vicious hit from middle linebacker Ray Lewis during an August practice.
"I definitely think that after catching the football and running it, they see that I am very elusive," Ross said in August. "I think that defenses think it's going to be a free kill shot, but I'm coming as hard as I can and it's going to surprise some people."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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