In the Ravens’ regular season opener against the Steelers, they allowed 103 yards on three kickoff returns, good for an average of 34.3 yards per run-back.
That number isn’t acceptable to special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg.
“Obviously, we didn’t cover to our standards in the first game,” Rosburg said today.
So, what was the issue? Part of the Steelers’ high return numbers can be attributed to Pittsburgh’s speedy kickoff returner, Antonio Brown, who can turn on the jets and has good instincts. But another part of it, Rosburg said, has to do with the fact that players and coaches are still getting used to how kickoffs will play out given the new rules which have the ball being kicked from the 35-yard line.
In comparison to previous years, teams had limited opportunities this preseason to practice kickoff coverage because there were so many touchbacks and players rotating in on the coverage teams. As a result, it will take time for teams to learn the new geometry that comes with kicks landing deeper in the end zone and the coverage necessary to contain a returner.
“We’re looking forward to this week because we think we know a little bit more about how the timing of the kicks fit,” Rosburg said. “I think that we’re going to be playing better this week; we learned a lot in that first game. When you look at it realistically, in the preseason we had so many different guys in there we didn’t have many opportunities to cover. This was really the first chance at full speed with the regular lineup in there. We learned a lot by it.
“I’m looking forward to getting back out there with our guys and having the opportunity to make some tackles inside the 20-yard line instead of inside the 40-yard line.”
Rosburg admitted that he wasn’t expecting to see so many kickoffs returned around the league last week, given how deep the kicks were landing. In the Ravens’ game against Pittsburgh, Brown ran out three kicks - one from four yards deep, one from seven yards deep, and one from (get this) nine yards deep.
“I think it surprised a lot of people,” Rosburg said. “What will be interesting to find out, as we go down the stretch here, is how many of those kicks will be brought out when the game is tight in the second half when you have a lead. Those things could change the whole scope of the kickoff return.”
While the Ravens might have learned a bit about how to properly cover kickoffs under the new rules, their special teams guys will face a tough matchup this week in Titans returner Marc Mariani, who ranked second in the league last year in kickoff return yardage.
Mariani, a second-year man out of Montana, averaged 25.5 yards per return last year, and he showed his ability to take kicks to the house in a Week 4 game against the Broncos when he ran one back 98 yards for a touchdown. His performance last year earned him a spot on the AFC Pro Bowl roster.
“He’s a fine returner,” Rosburg said. “We’ve watched him, obviously, up until this point. Our veteran players who’ve watched him are saying the same thing: He does everything right. He’s got great hands and ball-tracking skills and hands and decision making and vision and ball security. He’s got enough ability to take it all the way. There’s a reason he was in the Pro Bowl. He’s a great player.”