Return game still a big-time issue

For much of this season, John Harbaugh has been saying that he’s looking for big plays, or, at the very least, some positive strides out of the Ravens’ return game.

Last Sunday, yet again, he failed to get his wish.

Josh Wilson and Jalen Parmele combined to average just 16.6 yards on eight kickoff returns Sunday against the Bills, and Wilson compounded the return issues by fumbling a kick late in the first quarter, a mistake which gave Buffalo an easy field goal.

Those mistakes and low return numbers continue to irk Harbaugh, who again expressed his frustration with the kickoff unit yesterday.

“If you look at our special teams, I think we’re playing really well, except for the return game - specifically the kickoff return,” Harbaugh said. “That’s been tough. Putting the ball on the ground was really, really a problem. That should never have happened. Josh will tell you that. There’s no reason for it to happen. It was not well-blocked. They did a nice job of covering it, making some blocks miss. But at that point in time, you minimize, get up to the 20-yard line, and wherever the offense goes, we’ll be in good shape.

“To me, the returners are trying a little too hard right now to make a play. That’s the big thing: Make a good, solid play, run the ball north and south, protect the football high and tight, and we’ll get it blocked, and there will be some plays there for us. But don’t make an average play into a bad play. That’s kind of the cardinal sin.”

Baltimore is averaging just 21.3 yards per kickoff return, which ranks 23rd in the NFL. They’ve lost two fumbles on the season, and their longest return is just 39 yards. Neither Wilson nor Jalen Parmele has had any success returning kicks this season, which might lead the Ravens to explore other options over the bye week.

While the kickoff return statistics aren’t where Harbaugh wants them, the punt return numbers aren’t any more impressive. In fact, they’re worse.

The Ravens are second-to-last in the league in punt return average at just 5.7 yards per return. They’ve tried putting a number of guys back deep; Tom Zbikowski and Chris Carr have gotten most of the opportunities, but cornerback Lardarius Webb, who is less than a year removed from a torn ACL, and star safety Ed Reed were the two guys who were sent out to return punts on Sunday against Buffalo.

Harbaugh said the Ravens will continue to look for guys who can make plays in a punt return role, and they might even consider players who haven’t been traditional returners in their careers.

“As far as putting Lardarius back there, he’s the guy that’s got some talent, some ability, and he’s a good returner,” Harbaugh said. “And we felt like he was our best option in this game.

“I do feel confident that we have some guys that can do it as we go forward. Obviously, Zibby will be coming back. Chris Carr’s an option back there; Donte’ Stallworth will be coming back. [Derrick] Mason has been in my ear to do it. So, guys want to help, guys want to be a part of it, so we’ll try to get that thing going.”

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