OWINGS MILLS — The Baltimore Ravens have instituted a changing of the guard in the return game.
One week after Chris Carr lost a fumble on the opening kickoff in a loss to the New England Patriots, he has been replaced as the primary kickoff returner by speedy rookie Lardarius Webb.
Carr will remain the punt returner and will also hold onto his nickel back job.
The change comes as Webb returned a kickoff 38 yards against the Patriots, providing the Ravens with excellent field position late in the fourth quarter.
“The other thing we need to do is hang onto the football,” special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “Ball security is a big issue in this whole club, not just our special teams.”
Both players were informed this week by the coaching staff that Webb will be taking over kick return duties, but the third-round draft pick played it close to the vest during an interview Thursday.
“I don’t know for sure,” Webb said. “I’ve been working at it. Other than that, I don’t know yet. So, I’m not going to say something and then it doesn’t really happen.”
Signed to a two-year, $5 million contract this offseason, Carr has averaged 24.5 yards per kickoff return to rank seventh in the AFC and 15th overall.
“I think they already had confidence in me, but it was Chris’ job,” Webb said. “I’m going out there whenever they want me in.”
Webb has averaged 26.5 yards on three kickoff returns.
“Just like all other rookies, Lardarius gets more opportunities and we find out more things that he can do,” Rosburg said. “We expect his role to expand.”
CHANGE AT INSIDE LINEBACKER: It’s unclear if Tavares Gooden is going to regain his starting job at inside linebacker as he returns from missing the New England game with a concussion.
When asked if Gooden would return to the starting lineup, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison replied that Gooden would play as well as undrafted rookie Dannell Ellerbe and second-year pro Jameel McClain.
Ellerbe recorded six tackles against the Patriots.
“It gives us the luxury where we want to have the ability to have a lot of linebackers,” Mattison said. “It’s a physical league and we’ve got to have guys that step up. I think Ellerbe did a great job of coming in. His first start, his first playing experience and he did an outstanding job for us.”
RUNNING GAME DEBATE: The Ravens ran the football a season-low 17 times for 116 yards against New England while having quarterback Joe Flacco attempt a season-high 47 passes.
Was the balance out of whack?
“You’re always looking to get better, I think that’s the important thing,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “You learn and you grow and you move forward. I think we had a heck of a game plan. We made some subtle adjustments as we went along, but we always want to get better
“Like I say, ‘Look in the rearview mirror too long and second-guess, that doesn’t really help. We have high expectations for this team and this offense. We didn’t get the job done, and now the great news is we’ve got an opportunity this week.”
Philosophically, Cameron is of the belief that it’s not necessary to have a dominant running game to win in the NFL.
“Football has changed for the better,” he said. “Just look at last year’s Super Bowl. People have got to move beyond the notion that running the football leads to the championships. It doesn’t. If you just look over the last 10 years, it doesn’t.
“We all want to run the football, but you don’t have to run the football to win as much as people think. The rules have changed, the game has changed.”
Meanwhile, the Ravens didn’t get the job done in short-yardage situations as they were stuffed at a few key junctures.
“There are some things that we just need to improve on, and short yardage is one of those,” Cameron said.
Pro Bowl fullback Le’Ron McClain wasn’t on the field when running back Willis McGahee was stopped on 4th-and-1 up the middle in the fourth quarter.
“Me not being out there, I’m really disappointed,” McClain said. “I should have been out there. I should have just ran out there and took the play, but I didn’t. I guarantee I’ll be in there from now on.”
McGahee said that the play is one the Ravens wish they could have back.
This season, the Ravens have run the football 118 times for 586 yards with seven touchdowns. They’ve attempted 154 passes for 1,107 yards and eight touchdowns.
As far as whether the Ravens are running the football enough, McGahee didn’t complain.
“I think we’re okay right now,” he said. “It’s really not that time of year to run the ball. It’s not cold weather yet. I’m cool, know what I mean.”
INJURY UPDATE: Offensive tackle Jared Gaither didn’t practice for the second consecutive day and appears unlikely to play Sunday due to a neck injury as Michael Oher is preparing to start at left tackle.
Gaither is no longer wearing a neck brace, but can barely turn his head during interviews.
“Doing pretty good,” he said. “Made much progress. I’m looking forward to getting much better.”
When asked if he might play this week, Gaither smiled and said, “Great chance I play this week.”
Gaither acknowledged that he was scared when he was carted off the field with a severe stinger.
“I was very nervous,” he said. “I want to thank everyone that sent prayers down to the field.”
Gaither said he has no plans to watch the replay of the game.
Meanwhile, wide receiver Demetrius Williams didn’t practice for the second day due to an undisclosed illness.
Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (left shoulder) and wide receiver Derrick Mason (neck) were both upgraded to limited participation after being held out Wednesday.
Carr was limited with a groin injury.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (back), free safety Ed Reed (knee) and Gooden (shoulder) participated fully.
Bengals rookie offensive tackle Andre Smith is out with a broken foot.
And running back Cedric Benson was upgraded to full participating after being out Wednesday with a sore hip.
Rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga (knee) was upgraded to limited.
Defensive tackles Domata Peko (chest) and Tank Johnson (foot) were limited as well as safeties Chinedum Ndukwe (hamstring) and Kyries Hebert (hip).
Safety Roy Williams (broken forearm) participated fully as well as cornerback David Jones (foot).
OFFICIAL REVIEW: NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira defended the roughing the passer penalties assessed against Ngata and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.
Appearing on the NFL Network, Pereira made it clear that quarterback safety is the league’s top concern.
And he said that even though the blows were glancing ones that they were in the wrong area.
"We want players in the game," Pereira said. "We are constantly trying to protect players. We’re clearly going to stay with it. I’m not going to tell officials to back down. We don’t want players to get it in their minds that they can go low."
Ngata was flagged for light contact to the side of Brady’s helmet. And Suggs grazed Brady’s knee area.
"We have set a target, and that target is below the neck and above the knees," Pereira said
Pereira denied that Brady receives special treatment even though he was shown on video coaxing referee Ron Winter to throw the flag.
"I think it’s ludicrous," Pereira said. "That’s not the way it’s officiated. Nobody is going to officiate that way. It’s an area of judgment."
Pereira stressed that officials are told to err on the side of caution.
NO REPLACING HIM: The Ravens are hurting on special teams after three-time Pro Bowl selection Brendon Ayanbadejo was lost for the season with a torn quadriceps tendon in his left leg.
“We really can’t replace him,” Rosburg said. “That’s an accurate statement. I spoke with him. He was anxious to get back here as soon as he can to go out on the practice field with us and go into the meetings with us. So, Brendon Ayanbadejo, the assistant coach, will be returning real soon.”
Ayanbadejo underwent surgery to repair the damage in Birmingham, Ala., with Dr. James Andrews performing the procedure.
Rosburg said it was a successful surgery.
TRYOUT: The Ravens tried out left-footed punter Ricky Schmitt on Thursday to help prepare for the lefty boots of Bengals rookie punter Kevin Huber.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.