During last year’s Super Bowl run for the Baltimore Ravens, it was the near flawless play of the return teams that put the finishing touch on a hot team.
Wide receiver Jacoby Jones built on a career season by rising up to the occasion in the playoffs, returning a kickoff for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. He also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns during the regular season, averaging 30.7 yards per return.
This season is a different story.
On nine attempts, Jones hasn’t come close to taking one to the house, with his longest going for just 35 yards.
His average is down to 25.3 yards per return, and while he isn’t the electrifying return man he was last year, much of the return game struggles can be attributed to the poor blocking in front of him.
Jones doesn’t have the same quick decision-making he had last season, but quite frankly it doesn’t matter this year, as he hasn’t had much help on most kickoffs.
Let’s take a look at a few kickoff returns from the last two games.
Against the Cleveland Browns, Jones retrieves the ball on the right side of the blocking alignment and takes it up field to his left.
Safety Jeromy Miles, brought in for his special teams capability, could seal the deal on this play with a block on his man. Jones has an open running lane, and with his speed, he has the angle advantage on the defenders coming from his side.
Miles, however, whiffs big time on his man. Linebacker Josh Bynes also fails to seal off his man, but with Jones’s angle, beating Bynes’ man to the outside would not have been a major problem.
The problem here is Miles who fails to do the one thing he was brought to Baltimore to do – play special teams.
The running lane quickly closes in on Jones, and the return is halted.
Here’s a look at another return against the Browns.
This time, Jones retrieves the ball on the same side of the field and attempts a return down the sideline.
Jones has multiple running lanes develop, but keep an eye on Browns fullback Chris Ogbonnaya (circled) who is taking on a two-man block that includes cornerback Corey Graham.
The fullback easily sheds the double team, and while at this point there are two running lanes for Jones to choose from, Ogbonnaya is there to seal both of them off.
Jones is quickly pushed out of bounds, and a promising return amounts to nothing – just another poorly executed play that results in a missed opportunity for the special teams unit.
Here’s a look at a return against the Pittsburgh Steelers. On this play, the blame can be more directed toward Jones.
Jones returns the kickoff and at first glance, everything appears to be going as planned.
The blocking is beginning to take place up field, and ideally Jones takes this one to the outside, puts it into top gear, with a shot at taking it to the house.
As Jones approaches the lane, there is a gap developing, and a not-so-perfect block ahead is the only thing preventing this from being a home run. But as it turns out later in the play, that block really has nothing to do with the end result, as Jones’ quick change of heart offers a mind-boggling result.
He turns back toward the middle of the field, abandoning the once desirable running lane near the sideline, and he is quickly brought down by an onslaught of Steelers defenders.
What was Jones doing on the play? It’s hard to tell. His lane to the outside wasn’t perfect, but it was more than open enough for him to sneak through with no one else to beat but the kicker.
Instead, Jones did what top NFL kick returners don’t do, and that’s not committing to one run lane and attacking. How often last season did Jones have success when he danced around instead of using his speed and vision to take off without hesitation?
Not very often.
When he was at his best last year, he was able to commit and execute.
Overall, this is a two-way street. Jones isn’t helping his cause with some poor decisions, but the main problem on returns is the weak blocking ahead of him.
Halfway through the season, it’s hard to think this special teams unit will simply flip a switch and suddenly click on all cylinders. But at this point, that’s the only scenario that can salvage a struggling return game.
Which also brings up another issue.
How long until the Ravens fire Jerry Rosburg?