OWINGS MILLS – The Baltimore Ravens’ anemic return game hasn’t just skidded to a halt.
It hasn’t even gotten into first gear.
Heading into Sunday’s game at M&T Bank Stadium against the winless Buffalo Bills, the Ravens rank 22nd in kickoff returns with a 21.0 average and 29th in punt returns with a 5.7 average.
“If I had that ingredient, I’d go to the grocery store and purchase a big bucket of it,” said special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg when asked what’s the secret to become more explosive on kickoff returns. “The secret ingredient is good practice. It’s hard. It’s attention to detail, it’s film study.
“We’re not happy with our return game right now. Our players aren’t happy. I’m not happy. Returners aren’t happy. The blockers aren’t happy. We all want it to be better, and we’re working hard to try to correct that.”
If cornerback Josh Wilson didn’t have a strained hamstring, he could provide a potential solution to the problem.
He replaced Jalen Parmele recently, but couldn’t play against the New England Patriots to the leg injury.
Wilson said that a successful collaboration and excellent timing is what’s necessary to get the job done to bust a long return.
"Everything has to click," said Wilson, who’s averaging 20 yards on three returns. "There’s some where you’re going to make a great play. You make a couple guys miss and you’re off to the house, but that’s a rarity. That’s hard because so many guys come from different angles, and it’s hard to see everybody.
“I’m telling you, once this thing gets together, we’ll be through talking about how there’s no explosion. It’s going to be, ‘Man, what are you all going to do this time?’ If everybody executes, we’re going to bust it.”
The Ravens are starting their drives at the 22.3-yard line, the worst average starting field position in the league.
If Wilson is sidelined, the Ravens could go back Parmele. However, he hasn’t replicated last year’s success as he’s averaging just 22.3 yards per return.
Parmele averaged 31.4 yards per kickoff return last season.
Parmele angered coach John Harbaugh when he returned a kickoff that was four yards deep in the end zone.
“We’ve got to improve and make the right reads on returns,” Parmele said. “We’re close, but it comes down to execution and everybody being on the same page. It’s about timing and understanding what people are doing against us. If we can cut down on the penalties and make smart decisions and execute, we’re going to have chances to make something happen.”
Harbaugh wants the Ravens to run north-south and avoid taking it out of the end zone when it’s 4.3 seconds of hang time or above.
The Ravens are also evaluating rookie wide receiver David Reed as a candidate to return kickoffs.
The Ravens are reluctant to use cornerback Lardarius Webb on kickoff returns because he tore his anterior cruciate ligament last December.
“You look at David as he plays offense and special teams, he’s a guy that’s just a natural football player,” Rosburg said. “You put him on kickoff coverage, and he makes tackles. You put him in gunner, and he makes tackles. You put him at corner, and he blocks guys.
“I would guess that the best way I would categorize David is he’s just very much of a football player. We have a lot of guys that we’re working in the return game, and he’s one of them.”
A fifth-round draft pick who was a prolific returner at Utah, Reed gained 138 yards on four kickoff returns in the Ravens’ final preseason game against the St. Louis Rams.
“I’ll hit the hole hard and run as fast as I can,” Reed said. “Whatever yards are there to get, I’m going after them. I’m going to run full speed. I’ve got confidence in doing that and I love having the football in my hands with a chance to make a play.
INJURY UPDATES: Tight end Todd Heap returned to practice Thursday.
Heap had been sidelined with a neck injury ever suffering an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit when Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather smashed into him on an incomplete pass Sunday.
Wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth was back on the practice field today for the first time since the preseason.
It’s a significant sign of progress since Stallworth broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot in the third preseason game against the New York Giants and having a screw inserted to speed up the healing process.
Stallworth was able to run and perform some cuts during drills.
Ruled out for Sunday’s game, Stallworth isn’t projected to return until after the Ravens’ bye week. Under that timetable, he could play Nov. 7 against the Miami Dolphins.
Safety Tom Zbikowski (heel) didn’t practice again and isn’t expected to play.
Offensive tackle Tony Moll (eye) didn’t practice, too.
The Ravens upgraded wide receiver Derrick Mason (ankle, finger), linebacker Jarret Johnson (back), running back Ray Rice (ankle), Wilson, safety Haruki Nakamura (back) and defensive end Paul Kruger (sprained left medial collateral ligament) to full participation.
Outside linebacker Edgar Jones (bruised thigh) participated fully again.
Bills offensive tackle Cornell Green (knee) and cornerback Terrence McGee (back) didn’t practice again.
Nose guard Kyle Williams was downgraded to not practicing. He was limited Wednesday. Linebackers Keith Ellison (knee) and Arthur Moats (elbow) were limited. Tight end Shawn Nelson (groin) and safety Bryan Scott (knee) participated fully.
AYANBADEJO WORKING HIS WAY BACK: Brendon Ayanbadejo has been sidelined since last October when he tore his quadriceps tendon.The Ravens’ three-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace returned to practice Wednesday and is eligible to be activated from the physically unable to perform list this week.
It’s been a long wait for Ayanbadejo since he injured his leg last season against the Patriots.
"It’s made me really impatient," he said. "I expected to be back after 10 months and they told me it would be a 10 month recovery and we’re pushing 12 months now. It’s made me really impatient, but more than anything it’s made me appreciate the game.
"I got to sit in the stands and watch the game and see how big of a spectacle the NFL really is. I got butterflies just thinking about it. It’s a good feeling.”
However, it’s still up in the air whether he’ll be activated for the Ravens’ Sunday game against the Buffalo Bills.
"I haven’t played football in over a year," Ayanbadejo said. "I’m optimistic, but we’ll see."
It hasn’t been determined yet what sort of role Ayanbadejo will fill once he’s activated.
"We haven’t really talked about anything, to tell you the truth," Ayanbadejo said. "We’ve just got to make it through a week of practice. Of course, I want to play defense, but the special teams unit needs some help right now. More than anything, I just want to make a difference."
Ayanbadejo’s first practice after missing 18 games was a meaningful day for him.
"I hope to supercharge the special teams and supercharge the defense and keep rolling from there," he said.
Ayanbadejo says he expects to have some rust, but expects the leg to hold up.
"I haven’t played football," he said. "I trained hard every day putting at least two hours on this leg every day for five days a week. With football, we’re going to practice hard three days per week. It’s going to be longer but less activity. The intensity will be a little bit lower in practice. It’s just going to be different.
"I’m pretty confident the procedure is healed. There’s not really any pain. It feels good. Lying on the couch, it might be a little bit achy. I wish it felt as good relaxing as I do training."
BOUNCING BACK: It was an uncharacteristic game for offensive tackle Michael Oher.
The left tackle committed two false starts. He was called for holding once. And he allowed Patriots rookie outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham to sack quarterback Joe Flacco.
"I got to bounce back," Oher said. "I feel like I let the team down and I did some things that I normally wouldn’t do. I need to play a lot harder and a lot better. I got the coaches telling me I played a poor game, below my standards. I got to do a better job."
Now, Oher is looking for a resurgent game against the winless Buffalo Bills on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"They got good players upfront," Oher said. "We got to get after it."
Oher will primarily be responsible for blocking former Ravens defensive end Dwan Edwards.
"He’s a great player," Oher said. "We’re going to have to get after him."
UP TO REED: The Ravens have yet to announce that star free safety Ed Reed will definitely make his return Sunday following offseason hip surgery and six weeks on the physically unable to perform list.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison made it clear that it’s up to Reed whether he plays against Buffalo.
If that’s the case, then expect Reed to be out there.
“Ed Reed’s played long enough in this league and has done so many great things in this league that Ed Reed will let us know when Ed Reed is ready to go,” Mattison said. “He’s not a guy you have to question. Ed Reed will only go out and play if he thinks he can play well enough to help us win and to do what he has to do. Now Ed Reed will go out and practice and he’ll continue to work on things and run the defenses and stuff like that.
“If he feels like he’s ready to go, then that’ll be his decision, and we’ll go from there. But him being out there, I want you to know there were a lot of smiles when you saw him standing back there. I said this before: I’ve only been with him for three years, but my God, he looks good out there.”
The Ravens have been happy with how Zbikowski has played, but the prospect of adding a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a six-time Pro Bowl selection has Mattison smiling.
“Anytime you add him to the secondary and you look out there and you see that number, it’s different for me, I know that,” Mattison said. “And that’s not taking anything away from Tom Zbikowski. He’s done a tremendous job, but that’s Ed Reed. Just the vibrance, just to hear him talking back there and saying, ‘Watch this’ and ‘Watch that,’ that’s what he brings to the table.”