Ravens' return game out of sync

OWINGS MILLS -- Yamon Figurs hauled in the kickoff a few yards inside the Baltimore Ravens' end zone, and immediately decided he would venture out and try to make something happen. Nineteen yards later, Figurs was rudely deposited on the ground as unblocked Indianapolis Colts safety Melvin Bullitt bashed into him with a full head of steam in the first quarter.

A few minutes later following another Colts touchdown during a 31-3 rout Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, Figurs caught the football five yards deep in the end zone and picked up another short gain as Bullitt roughly slammed him down again.

Each time, settling for a touchback would have been a better decision. Instead of a weapon, the Ravens' return game was a detriment in the critical field-position game.

Between some ill-advised decisions by Figurs based on the excellent hang time and distance Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri generated, a shaky blocking wedge for Figurs to run behind and poor timing, the Ravens average starting point for the game was their own 18-yard line.

"We've got to get our return game going," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who coached the Philadelphia Eagles' well-respected special-teams units for nearly a decade. "We get our return game going, we give our offense a chance to punch out some field position there.

"We'll be in good shape. I thought we punted well, we covered well, but the return game needs to be better, both return phases."

Figurs is a dangerous return man, one of the fastest players in the league. He became the only player in Ravens team history to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the same season as a rookie last year.

However, he averaged just 17.7 yards on three kickoff returns against the Colts. He averaged four yards on two punt returns and suffered a knee contusion that required a magnetic resonance imaging exam.

Harbaugh emphasized that it's not strictly Figurs' fault since each return is entirely different even if the results were extremely similar.

"No two kickoff returns are exactly the same," Harbaugh said. "There's a multitude of techniques and spacing and timing and geometry involved and they've all been different issues, but all things that we have to correct. It basically boils down to blocking and running with the football, hitting the hole in the right spot and keeping the timing correct.

"For instance, we run a sideline return to the left and the ball's kicked with 4.2 hang time five yards deep in the end zone. If that ball's kicked to the goal line in 4.0, 4.1, we're timed up with all our blocks, but you bring it out five deep and guys are going to run around behind blocks and make plays. So, your timing is not there. Other times, the timing was there, but somebody got beat across their face or got shook down or just basically got beat on a block."

As a general rule, Harbaugh said that he doesn't want Figurs returning it when he's five yards deep in the end zone with four seconds or more of hang time. If it's three yards deep and 3.7 to 3.8 seconds of hang time, then he has the green light.

"Those guys develop kind of a mental clock in their head, and we give them a count that they go through when the ball is in the air so they can tell the hang time and whether they have a chance to bring it out and maintain the timing," Harbaugh said. "When our guys set up and make those blocks between the 30 and 25-yard line, Yamon is going to be coming up through the hole at that point in time.

"If it's too much hang time when it's in the end zone, he's not. There's going to be more separation, and there's no way the guys blocking have a sense of really knowing that."

For the season, Figurs is averaging 20.7 yards per kickoff return and 7.1 yards per punt return while dealing with a nagging hamstring injury.

After such a poor outing, the Ravens have a chance to get well on special teams this week against the Miami Dolphins.

They gave up a 70-yard punt return and a 50-yard kickoff return in a loss to the Houston Texans, and Dolphins coach Tony Sparano estimated 11 missed tackles on special teams.

"We have people we take to the game that are core special-teams players," Sparano told Miami reporters. "They have to start playing like core special teams players."


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