OWINGS MILLS — A fairly short punt sailed high into the air before spiraling down toward the outstretched fingertips of Baltimore Ravens rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb.
Despite the Atlanta Falcons’ coverage team accelerating dangerously close to him last week at the Georgia Dome, Webb was determined to try to make something happen after being conservative with two consecutive fair catches earlier in the Ravens’ 20-3 preseason finale victory.
When Webb caught the football at the Ravens’ 23-yard line, Falcons cornerback Chris Owens immediately smashed into him to force a fumble. Luckily, it was recovered by Baltimore linebacker Prescott Burgess.
For Webb, his electrifying return skills in college and 4.35 speed in the 40-yard dash have yet to successfully translate into the NFL as he learns on the job behind primary returner Chris Carr.
"It was me trying to make a play when I didn’t need to be making a play," Webb said Friday in the Ravens’ locker room. "They punted it twice and I fair-caught them when I should have taken them. That’s when I thought, ‘I want to help the team and make a play.
"When I did catch it, they were so close on me and I tried to make a play. A dumb move, but I learn from it. This preseason, I’ve learned a lot from my teammates, my mistakes and my own actions."
At Nicholls State, Webb’s instincts and athleticism were almost always superior to the competition.
A two-time Division I-AA All-American selection, he generated 1,060 career yards on kickoff returns with three touchdowns.
He also contributed 425 punt return, including a 96-yarder returned for a touchdown against Texas State that’s two yards shy of the NCAA record for the longest punt return.
"That’s what I do," Webb said. "I can return kicks, punts. It comes natural to me. My confidence is up there, and it can only get better over the years."
Against the Falcons, Webb returned two kickoffs for 43 yards for a 21.5 average.
During his first season at Nicholls after transferring from Southern Miss, Webb averaged 17.1 yards per punt return and 26.7 yards per kickoff return.
Webb grew up emulating Chicago Bears wide receiver and returner Devin Hester.
Now, he’s trying to adjust to the speed of the professional game and build timing with his new teammates as he gets acclimated to different blocking schemes.
"That’s the whole deal is to try to get comfortable, knowing when to take a chance and when not to," Webb said. "I have to put my thinking hat on and know when to take those chances. Sometimes, I’m trying to make a big play and it cost me."
Since the Ravens have Carr, a steady, albeit unspectacular return man, signed to a two-year contract, there’s no rush to hand over the return duties to Webb.
Plus, Webb is going to be utilized on defense as a reserve cornerback.
"He’s got the job, so whenever they want me to come in, I’ll always be ready," Webb said. "Special teams is a big thing for me this year, no matter what phase it is."
That’s an understatement.
Webb is on the Ravens’ kickoff team. He’s a gunner in punt coverage. And he’ll also block for Carr on punt returns.
Plus, he’s expected to return a few kickoffs and punts here and there behind Carr.
"I do special teams," Webb said. "That’s me. Whenever I get in on defense, I would love to do that, too."