Ravens' kickoff coverage lagging behind

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens' regression on special teams has been particularly glaring on kickoffs. After allowing their second touchdown return of the season in a 36-7 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, the Ravens' kickoff team now ranks 28th in the NFL with opponents enjoying an adjusted average start of the 29.5 yard marker.

And kickers Matt Stover and Steve Hauschka have combined for just six touchbacks.

It's surprising that the Ravens (7-4) are having this much trouble covering kickoffs considering coach John Harbaugh's extensive special-teams background and special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg's reputation.

Although Harbaugh has stressed that the problems are correctable, the players simply haven't done a consistent job of staying in their coverage lanes, getting off blocks and making tackles in the open field.

"Everybody just has to play their assignments and play their technique," Pro Bowl special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo said Thursday. "You can't have some gu ys not doing their assignments. Even if you bust your assignment, there's still a certain technique you have to play."

When Eagles rookie Quintin Demps busted up the middle for a 100-yard kickoff return, Philadelphia's wedge picked off virtually every potential tackler. Some of the players had already taken themselves out of the play by running around blocks and inadvertently created an even larger hole for Demps to bolt through.

"You can run around the block, but, if you do, you have to stack it and get back in your lane," Ayanbadejo said. "I just play football. The most important things are technique and toughness."

As a veteran special-teams standout who signed a four-year, $4.9 million contract with the Ravens during the offseason, Ayanbadejo replaced former Pro Bowl special-teams ace Gary Stills as the leader of the special teams. Stills was cut in August and signed with the St. Louis Rams, and the Ravens seem to miss his emotional and physical presence.

"If I see somebody doing something wrong, I can offer my advice," Ayanbadejo said. "Special teams get special effort."

TRAINING ROOM: Offensive tackle Jared Gaither (right shoulder sprain) was downgraded to not practicing after being limited Wednesday.

Defensive end Trevor Pryce practiced on a limited basis after suffering a concussion when he took a helmet-to-helmet hit from Eagles offensive tackle Tra Thomas, but says he's on schedule to play Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

It was the first concussion of his career. He'll undergo a baseline test today to gauge his readiness.

"I feel fine, I just got my bell rung by a guy I've known all my life," Pryce said. "I'm too tall to get concussions."

Tight end Todd Heap (illness) returned to practice, participating fully after being held out Wednesday.

Wide receiver Mark Clayton was added to the injury report, practicing on a limited basis due to a tight lower back.

Wide receiver Terrance Copper (neck) was upgraded to limited participation.

MOBILE: Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is much more elusive than injured starter Carson Palmer, and is inclined to run on a regular basis.

He has escaped the pocket often, rushing 31 times for 190 yards and a touchdown.

"He does move a lot, he runs around," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "We definitely have to be aware of that, but it's not like he's Michael Vick. He's a good athlete. If he sees it, then he'll take it and will run for first downs.

"We're aware he's a runner. We're going to keep an eye on him, no doubt. We've contained quarterbacks in the past. He's definitely looking for it. If he doesn't like what he sees, almost immediately he's looking to run."

MATCHING UP: Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has five career sacks against the Bengals, usually getting the best of offensive tackle Levi Jones, his former Arizona State teammate.

Ryan is expecting Suggs to win this encounter again. Suggs leads the Ravens with five sacks.

"That's been a little one-sided, to be honest with you," Ryan said. "We hope that trend continues. They can get jacked up all they want to, but you still got to block Suggs.

"Levi is a good player, all that kind of stuff, but Terrell Suggs is a great player. We like that matchup."

BIG GAME: Cornerback Samari Rolle intercepted a pass against the Eagles, tied his career high with four pass deflections and nearly picked off a few more errant throws.

It was arguably his top game of the season.

"I think so," Ryan said. "Samari has had some great games. He's played really well a couple weeks in a row. He could have had three interceptions. Samari is Samari. He's done a fantastic job."

MOST IMPROVED: Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson is having a breakthrough season, improving as a blitzer and in pass coverage in his second season as former Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas' replacement.

Johnson has recorded a career-high 4 1/2 sacks to go with 65 tackles, a team-high two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

"I think he's taken his game to a higher level," Ryan said. "He was a good player last year. Right now, he's fantastic. His coverage has been great, his route recognition.

"He's comfortable now. Last year, he did a good job, but it was by the book. Now, he recognizes pass concepts."

Johnson's improvement as a pass rusher hasn't solely been a byproduct of increased blitzing op portunities. He's just capitalizing on his chances more this season than a year ago when he was hampered by a broken thumb.

"It's just him," Ryan said. "When he gets that opportunity, he's getting there. We move him all over. He's doing a tremendous job for us. Of course, he's tremendous against the run, too."

THANKSGIVING: The Ravens conducted a morning practice before being given the rest of the day off and rushing out of the training complex to be with their families for the holiday.

Rookie running back Ray Rice's mother, Janet Rice, was in town cooking up a hearty meal for Rice and several of his teammates.

"My family is all at the house now cooking," Rice said. "It's going to be great. I can't wait to sit down for dinner. My mom is a great cook."

QUICK HIT: Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and Atlanta Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan have the highest combined winning percentage (.636) of any two rookie quarterbacks in NFL history with a 14-8 combined record.

They rank ahead of John Elway and Dan Marino going 11-8 (.579) in 1983, Phil Simms and Steve Fuller going 12-11 (.522) in 1979 and Matt Leinart and Vince Young going 12-12 (.500) in 2006.

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


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