Ravens place heavy emphasis on special teams

OWINGS MILLS -- John Harbaugh spent a decade in Philadelphia preaching the merits of aggression, precision and discipline in the kicking game. For the newly-minted head coach, his ascension from an enthusiastic Philadelphia Eagles' special-teams coach to assuming the top spot on the Baltimore Ravens' sidelines hasn't changed his philosophy and beliefs.

In words and mostly in deeds, the Ravens' offseason strategy has not surprisingly tilted toward special teams.

Former Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons special-teams coach Jerry Rosburg has been entrusted by Harbaugh to implement a new system and has been given the title of special-teams coordinator. Rosburg is a former mentor of Browns star return specialist Josh Cribbs.

Baltimore signed former Chicago Bears special-teams captain Brendon Ayanbadejo to a four-year, $4.925 million contract that included a $1.9 million signing bonus, and also added former Green Bay Packers cornerback Frank Walker during free agency. Walker is regarded as one of the best punt gunners in the league.

At least six of the Ravens' 10 draft picks are earmarked for special teams, including linebacker Tavares Gooden, safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, wide receiver Marcus Smith and running backs Ray Rice and Allen Patrick.

"We've got some guys that are proven special-teams players and some young guys that have the mindset to be good special-teams players," Harbaugh said. "Other than that, we're just building the foundation."

That foundation includes the building blocks of reliable veteran kicker Matt Stover, the league's fourth all-time leading scorer with 1,822 points, punter Sam Koch, who registered a career-high 43.6 yard average last season, and swift return specialist Yamon Figurs.

Not to mention Ayanbadejo, the younger brother of former Ravens fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo. The two-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace is already becoming a star pupil.

"He's a very skilled player," Rosburg said. "A lot of times there's a notion that the guy's a special-teams player because he can't do anything else. This particular man is a highly-skilled athlete, and the knowledge that he brings to the game is really valuable.

"He's been in a system somewhat similar to John's, and our system now is kind of a compilation of a lot of things, a lot of it John's, a lot of it mine. The skill level that he has, the technique that he can demonstrate and the leadership that we expect from him are all really valuable assets."

So is Stover, 40, who converted 27 of 32 field goals last season. Entering his 19th season, Stover led the NFL in field-goal percentage two years ago with a 93.3 percent clip.

"His record speaks for itself," Rosburg said. "He's a guy that has developed a skill that is highly valuable, and he's very, very good at it. He knows how to kick the ball straight.

"He knows what he's doing, and that's why he's been able to do it for so long. If it were that easy, there'd be more people who'd be able to do it."

For Stover, it has been a quick mesh with the new coaching staff's philosophy.

"Being that John Harbaugh was a special-teams coach, it says a lot about Jerry that he's the guy he hired," Stover said. "I respect Jerry. He's always well-prepared and he communicates well. I couldn't see a better fit."

The Ravens also feature former Pro Bowl special-teams selection Gary Stills, who's trying to hold onto his wedge-busting role in the wake of Ayanbadejo's arrival.

Stills set a franchise record with 44 special-teams tackles two years ago. However, there's speculation that retaining him may prove difficult because keeping designating two roster spots strictly for special-teams is a luxury.

"I'll take every special-teams player I can get," Rosburg said. "I knew Gary from a distance because I coached against him so many times, and he was so hard to block. We always had to game-plan the guy.

"The man has a lot of skill. He's fun to be around, he loves special teams, he loves football in general and he's been a real asset to us."

Stills and Ayanbadejo have developed a good-natured rivalry, often joking with each other in the locker room about who's the best.

"It is real competitive because we're trying to bring the best out in each other," Ayanbadejo said. "Gary said, 'I've led every team I've ever played on in special-teams tackles,' and I said, 'Well, Gary, I've done the same thing.

"So it's going to be real interesting to see what happens. Both of are used to being double-teamed, so I guess they'll have to pick one of us to try to block."

Gooden, an undersized, speedy former University of Miami star, is also likely slated for the kickoff team.

"Tavares ought to be a shining star on special teams," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "I can't wait to see that first kickoff when those guys are running down there."

Based on Harbaugh's background and an increased emphasis during minicamps, it's evident that special-teams won't be regarded as the so-called third phase of football in Baltimore.

"I certainly think there's emphasis in terms of practice time, in terms of staff involvement, in terms of player personnel," Rosburg said. "It's a great opportunity for us to be good on special teams because the boss knows it."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.


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