OWINGS MILLS — The dynamic in the kicking game changes dramatically Sunday for the Baltimore Ravens.
As one of the top special teams units in terms of kick coverage, the Ravens have already contained explosive returners such as Joshua Cribbs and Eddie Royal this season.
Now, they’re being asked to deal with the blistering speed of Chicago Bears returners Devin Hester and Johnny Knox. The sprinters personify the phrase, fast forward.
“It’s as tough, but it’s different than playing Josh Cribbs,” Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “It’s different because the guys we’re playing this weekend, they all possess the breakaway speed factor. You can’t give them openings.
“If you make a mistake against this team, then you’re going to be looking at them from behind. These guys can all crack a seam and go the distance. We have to be very good in our coverages this week.”
Hester is averaging 8.1 yards per punt return this season. A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Hester has returned 11 career kickoffs and seven career punt returns for touchdowns.
“He’s one of the greatest,” Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “We just have to not let him get one on us. That’s going to be an important phase this week to stop him because he’s a great returner, one of the guys that everybody looked up to when they were young.”
Even though Hester has been dealing with a calf injury this week, the Ravens are no less haunted by No. 23.
“You see 23 in your sleep,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s just an amazing playmaker.”
“Both of those guys are so explosive,” punter Sam Koch said. “Between me and [kicker] Billy Cundiff, we have to make sure we let the coverage guys and gunners get down there. So, obviously, hang time, distance and placement are huge.
“It’s about us doing our job as a coverage unit. We can’t let them get into a rhythm. This is as tough as anyone we’ve faced. Knox is like Cribbs, very explosive. I try not to think too much about that and just do my job.”
For the season, the Ravens have allowed just 19.7 yards per kickoff return and only 6.0 yards per punt return. They rank second in the NFL in kickoff coverage and fourth in punt coverage.
And they’ve done it against some of the most dangerous returners in the league. Cribbs leads the AFC with a 14-yard punt return average and has scored two touchdowns. He has also returned one kickoff for a score.
Royal has returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. And New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker is averaging 13 yards per punt return.
“This week, we have a very special challenge. There is no question. These guys are all threats.”
Since allowing San Diego Chargers running back Darren Sproles to return four kickoffs for 128 yards in the second game of the season and giving up 159 yards on kickoff returns during the third game against the Browns, the Ravens’ kick coverage has improved markedly. In the past 10 games, they have only allowed two teams to average over 20 yards on kickoff returns.
“I think we’ve grown during the course of the season,” Rosburg said. “The players deserve the bulk of the credit. I think now that we’ve got to this point of the season, they understand each other better. They know the guy playing next to them better. They’ve grown in that regard.
“I also have to give credit to our kicker and our punter, because those things are really important to us, where we place the ball, how much hang time is on the ball. It all fits together, so it’s been very much of a team effort.”