As the start of free agency moves closer and teams prepare for April’s draft, the Ravens continue to evaluate their needs in all three phases of the game.
Earlier in the week, I looked at Baltimore’s biggest needs on offense as well as essentials for the defense. In the conclusion of a three-part series, we finally take a long at the often-forgotten but always-important phase of the game: special teams.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron undoubtedly receives the most criticism among the coaches on the Ravens staff, but special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg may deserve the most heat after a disappointing 2011 season. According to footballoutsiders.com, the Ravens’ special teams ranked 30th in the league in a percentage contrived from efficiency in field goals, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, and punt returns.
Looking from a more simplistic stance, Rosburg’s units struggled in both kickoff coverage (31st) and punt coverage (24th) and allowed three returns for touchdowns. In the return game, the Ravens ranked ninth in kickoff return average and 19th in punt return average, rarely getting a significant spark from either group as injuries and ineffectiveness forced them to shuffle returners in and out of the lineup.
Kicker Billy Cundiff converted only 75.7 percent of his field goal attempts, ranking 28th in the league. The 2010 Pro Bowl kicker made only one of six attempts from 50 or more yards and was only 11-for-20 away from M&T Bank Stadium — where he was perfect on 17 attempts. And that’s not even taking into account his heartbreaking 32-yard miss in the closing seconds of the AFC championship game that would have sent the Ravens into overtime against New England.
If you’re looking for a bright spot, punter Sam Koch ranked 10th in punt average (46.5 yards) but 19th in net average, which was affected by the Ravens’ suspect coverage.
While it’s difficult to target a laundry list of special teams’ needs from a position-by-position standpoint — the units simply need to improve across the board — but two positions stand out this offseason.
Before you get carried away, this isn’t the pitchfork mentality we’re talking about here. Cundiff isn’t going anywhere for now. However, his disappointing season topped off by the most devastating moment in the 16-year history of the franchise can’t be forgotten as the Ravens assess their special teams.
To their credit, the organization and Cundiff have handled the miss with as much dignity as can be expected, with no one publicly questioning whether the Ravens should have kept veteran Shayne Graham to kick in the postseason. It’s been a credit to coach John Harbaugh and the family atmosphere in the locker room.
But what everyone is thinking privately is a different story. In his defense, Cundiff battled a left calf injury late in the season, but it doesn’t excuse what was a very inconsistent year after signing a five-year contract last January. For a kicker without a proven track record beyond his Pro Bowl season a year ago, Cundiff may have reverted back to the inconsistent performer seen early in his career.
The Ravens need to bring in another kicker to seriously compete against Cundiff during the preseason. The organization will keep Cundiff for now in hopes of avoiding the situation in which they found themselves in 2009 after parting company with Matt Stover. Neither Steve Hauschka nor Graham Gano were fit for the job, forcing the Ravens to scramble during the regular season until they settled on Cundiff.
It needs to be a serious competition, whether the Ravens elect to find a rookie coming out of college such as Randy Bullock of Texas A&M or a veteran on the open market. Graham wasn’t good enough to win the competition against Cundiff two years ago and has struggled with long-distance kicks in recent years, so it makes little sense to bring him back for the competition.
Even if Cundiff performs admirably in the preseason and wins the battle, the Ravens and their fans simply won’t know whether he’s recovered from the disappointment in Foxborough until he finds himself in another late-game situation. It’s difficult to envision the Ravens ever fully trusting Cundiff again, but they’ll at least give him a chance in the preseason before moving on for good.
2. Kickoff-Punt Returner
The Ravens had 10 different players return kickoffs — three of those only returned squibs or pooch kicks — in 2011 and never found stability at the position. Second-year return specialist David Reed was demoted after two fumbles on returns against the Seattle Seahawks and then tore his ACL when he finally earned another opportunity to handle kickoffs.
While Reed will certainly find himself in the mix if he proves healthy in recovering from the knee injury this offseason, the Ravens must look to add an impact returner, preferably someone who can handle both kickoffs and punts to allow Lardarius Webb to focus solely on his duties at cornerback. Field position is critical, and the return units rarely aided the Ravens offense in setting it up on a shorter field.
Of course, the new kickoff rule limited many returners across the league, but the Ravens cannot settle for a returner downing the ball in the end zone constantly as they did down the stretch with reserve safety Tom Zbikowski this past season.
The Ravens could look to the draft for a returner such as Arkansas receiver Joe Adams in the middle rounds, who could add depth in both areas. One name to keep an eye on in the preseason is receiver Phillip Livas, who was signed to the practice squad in the final weeks of the season. Though only 5-foot-8, Livas was a record-setting return man at Louisiana Tech and could be a sleeper to watch in the preseason.