The Ravens sent a clear message on Friday of their intentions to improve their special teams from a season ago.
In addition to re-signing three-time Pro Bowl selection Brendon Ayanbadejo, general manager Ozzie Newsome added 2011 Pro Bowl special teams player Corey Graham and veteran Sean Considine to improve depth in the secondary as well as add more experience to the special teams units.
According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Ravens finished 30th in overall special teams last season. And given head coach John Harbaugh’s background as the longtime special teams coordinator for the Philadelpia Eagles, you knew addressing that facet of the game would be a priority this offseason.
“It’s certainly something that we felt, coming out of the season, that we really needed to do,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We weren’t as good there as we needed to be. We needed to be more explosive; we need to cover kicks better.”
While the struggles of kicker Billy Cundiff received much of the attention, the Ravens stumbled elsewhere, finishing 31st in kickoff coverage and 24th in punt coverage while allowing three returns for touchdowns in 2011. Adding a return specialist will also be a priority as Baltimore too often settled for touchbacks on its kickoff returns and would also like to replace top cornerback Lardarius Webb as the punt returner.
Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has come under fire because of his group’s struggles last season, but Ayanbadejo was quick to deflect the blame from the coaching staff when asked about it during Friday’s conference call.
“I think the biggest failure is that the players failed the coaches,” Ayanbadejo said. “The coaches did the same thing they’ve done every year.”
With special teams units comprised mostly of younger players, Ayanbadejo pointed to the absence of an offseason as a major factor that contributed to the Ravens’ struggles in kick coverage.
However, the 35-year-old linebacker went on to question the motives of last year’s rookies when it came to their commitment to special teams. Without naming names, Ayanbadejo clearly had at least a couple individuals in mind who were more interested in working their way into the starting lineup than contributing in the third facet of the game.
“When these young guys come in, they have to understand that they’re going to cover a kick before they go out there and cover a receiver,” Ayanbadejo said. “They’re going to cover a kick before they go out there and run a route. I don’t think last year’s group got that. They felt like they were going to come in and surpass special teams and go play defense. Their priorities were in the wrong place.”
Ayanbadejo finished with nine tackles on special teams, second to linebacker Albert McClellan’s 12 last season. The veteran went on to explain how experience players also needed to have more accountability in the group’s performance in hopes of improving in 2012.
“It’s not just on the young guys,” Ayanbadejo said. “It’s on guys like myself; I missed some tackles and I did some things wrong as well. As a group, we have to focus and put that time in and dedication and understand that there is an order to how football is played.”
If any player has the authority to speak critically about the team’s performance on special teams, it’s Ayanbadejo, who has been to three Pro Bowls as a special teams player with the Bears and the Ravens over his nine-year career.
I have my suspicions about which players Ayanbadejo might be referencing — particularly with him twice mentioning young players wanting to play defense — but it will be interesting to see if those individuals were paying attention to the veteran’s comments.