The issues of the Baltimore Ravens' rushing attack have been well-documented, but there is another problem that has flown under the radar: special teams. The least glamorous phase of the game rarely gets any publicity, but it can be the difference between winning and losing—like it was against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when it cost Baltimore the game.
Last year, the Ravens finished as the league's best special teams unit according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
This season, they've had their issues in multiple facets, and the mistakes have been critical.
For example, punt protection hadn't been an issue for a long time, and Sam Koch only had two of his 558 punts blocked from 2006 to 2012.
He's already had two punts blocked in seven weeks this year.
The Green Bay Packers were consistently lining up in punt block formations and were rewarded with a block (which eventually rewarded Baltimore with a first down).
According to Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said the breakdown was the result of miscommunication. As you can see on the play, the Packers overloaded one side and got two players matched up against one Raven (circled in blue).
The result: Neither player was adequately blocked and they both got through, leading to Ryan Taylor (No. 82) blocking the punt.
Special teams errors reared their ugly heads again in Pittsburgh. Head coach John Harbaugh decided to go for a surprise onside kick. According to BaltimoreRavens.com, Harbaugh indicated that he had seen some Steelers tendencies that made him think the Ravens could recover the ball, and he stood by the decision after the fact.
Looking back on the play, it certainly looked like a good time for the call.
With Pittsburgh lining up in their normal return formation, there were only three Steelers who could have made a play on the kick (black).
On the contrary, Baltimore had five players on that side of the field (light blue). In addition, safety Jeromy Miles (yellow) and kicker Justin Tucker would be trying to recover the ball, so Baltimore had a four-man advantage.
Unfortunately, in his haste to make a block, Miles jumped way offside, which would have negated any recovery anyway (he's already offside in the screen-grab). Miles' motion also alerted Pittsburgh linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (circled in navy blue) to the imminent onside kick.
Arthur Brown and Jeromy Miles were supposed to block Sylvester (green lines), but both of them overran the play and missed their assignment. As a result, not only did Sylvester demolish Justin Tucker, but he also recovered the football in field-goal range.
While some of the blame may go to Harbaugh for the call, it was the dreadful execution on the field that hurt the Ravens.
That wasn't the last blunder that special teams made in the game either. Right after Joe Flacco marched down the field and scored a game-tying touchdown, blown coverage almost resulted in a Steelers touchdown on the ensuing kickoff.
As Emmanuel Sanders caught the ball in his own end zone (red), the coverage team was out of position. Baltimore had numbers on the left-hand side of the field, but Michael Huff and Deonte Thompson (circled in yellow) are too far from the right sideline.
Sanders chose to bring the ball out, and he immediately spotted the gaping lane developing to his right (red). Three Pittsburgh blockers were able to wall off the sideline (black) and prevent Michael Huff (yellow) from setting the edge.
Sanders very nearly took it all the way for six points, but he barely stepped out of bounds. Regardless, the 44-yard return gave Pittsburgh excellent field position for its game-winning drive.
|Return Coverage Ranks|
|Opponent Kickoff Return Average||26.4 yards per return||28|
|Opponent Punt Return Average||9.6 yards per return||24|
The return coverage has not been good for the Ravens all year, and it was only a matter of time until an opponent broke a big return. In this situation, it played a huge role in a loss.
The bye week is a chance for the players to get some rest, but it's also a perfect opportunity for the coaching staff to try and iron out some of the wrinkles they've seen over the first seven weeks.
While there are many areas that need attention (the running game and rushing defense, for example), you can be certain that there will be an emphasis on special teams performance.
Coach Harbaugh was a special teams coach earlier in his career, and he was disappointed with the performance of his special teams unit against Pittsburgh. Per BaltimoreRavens.com, in his postgame press conference he said, "We've got to play better on special teams. We're going to go find some guys that want to play special teams."
He also described the offsides penalty on the onside kick as "unforgivable" and the kickoff coverage as "unheard of."
Part of it is the youth movement that has a number of new faces and rookies (like John Simon, Kyle Juszczyk and Matt Elam) playing most of the special teams snaps.
Perhaps there will be some personnel changes coming to beef up the special teams. Whatever they do, they need to play more disciplined football for the rest of the season.
With a number of things already needing attention over the bye week, special teams can be added to the list.