Ravens' special teams are underachieving

When special teams coach Russ Purnell was escorted out the door by the Baltimore Ravens after last season, his keys weren't the only thing that left the building. Besides Pro Bowl return specialist Jermaine Lewis' departure to the expansion Houston Texans, the Ravens also lost a great deal of the continuity necessary to excel in this critical third phase of football.

Instead of maintaining the gold standard of the past, several aspects of the Ravens' special teams have actually struggled despite the creative drills and innovations of coach Gary Zauner.

In last week's 31-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, there was significant evidence of the downgrade possibly caused by lack of experience and the presence of too many starting offensive and defensive players.

Fumbles, penalties, short kickoffs and poor pursuit angles meant lost opportunities. Entering today's game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome, the special teams are looking to retool.

"We just have to get better," strong safety Chad Williams said. "We have to get 11 guys to the football. We have to find a way."

Zauner was pointedly critical after the loss to the Steelers in outlining who was at fault, going through all the gory details.

 Kick returner Robert Tate fumbled twice.

 Receiver Ron Johnson committed two penalties.

 With relative ease, Antwaan Randle El negotiated his way past the Ravens for a 37-yard kickoff return and a 19-yard punt return.

 Without injured kickoff specialist J.R. Jenkins, kicker Matt Stover had four kickoffs, no touchbacks. The Steelers' average field position on a dozen drives was their own 49-yard line.

Stover said his timing was a tad off because he hadn't kicked off in quite a while.

The Ravens' leading scorer expressed confidence in Zauner.

"Gary is always prepared with the scheme, but he also does a great job at putting the right people out there," said Stover, who has hit 10 of 12 field goals and is perfect on a dozen extra points. "I think our special teams have improved, but we need to make a bigger difference. You can't lose the field position battle. You saw that Sunday, but Gary is making sure the details are taken care of."

Zauner, who joined the Ravens after a successful tenure with the Minnesota Vikings, has been silent on the matter.

"Most of the special teams difficulties we've had have come down to basic fundamentals," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Yeah, my expectations are never to turn the ball over. My expectations are not to miss a clear-cut tackle, so that's what you're always working on."

Billick made it clear that rookie Lamont Brightful will be used heavily on kick returns. Brightful returned four kicks against the Steelers for 75 yards and an 18.8 average.

Before this winter's massive roster slashing to satisfy salary-cap requirements, Baltimore gave up 5.5 yards per punt return last season with opponents gaining a 21.8 average on kickoffs.

This year's edition surrenders 21.2 yards per kickoff return, allowing 11.5 on punt returns.

 Rookie punter Dave Zastudil has a 41.5 average, a 34.3 net, compared to veteran Kyle Richardson, who compiled a 38.8 average, 33.6 net during his last season in Baltimore.

Billick refuted a suggestion that Zauner's units hadn't performed as well as previous Ravens teams.

"Come on, now, a guy fumbles the ball twice and now we're all going to crap down our leg and can our special teams?" Billick said. "Go back and compare. Our kickoff team has been excellent. Last year, it was, ‘OK, take it out to the 40.' They haven't done that."

Tate leads the team with a 20.9 kick return average, including one 64-yard return, but he definitely hurt the Ravens' cause with his two miscues last week.

Cornerback Chris McAlister will continue to be the punt returner despite a fumble against Pittsburgh. He has a 7.3 average. McAlister gained two yards on two punts last week.

 "We haven't returned a lot of punts because we've faced a lot of punters who are excellent," Billick said. "We've put some pressure on. The net result is the field position has been adequate."

Defensive end Adalius Thomas said the Ravens have to be careful today against shifty Allen Rossum, who averages 12.9 per punt return, 23.7 per kickoff return.

 Zauner's players say he hasn't lost his patience yet, but it's obviously wearing thinner.

"We can always play better and we have a long way to go," rookie linebacker Bart Scott said. "We have to get the understanding that comes from playing together for a while."

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