After the Ravens lost on a heartbreaking missed kick by Billy Cundiff in 2011, the team went about retooling their special teams. And they did a really good job. According to the advanced stats site Football Outsiders (who did a great interview on Baltimore Beatdown here), the Ravens had the best special teams in the NFL- a huge jump from 2011, when they were ranked 30th. So how did the Ravens achieve this huge jump in special team effectiveness? I break down how the Ravens improved from 2011 to 2012, and evaluate whether those gains are sustainable into the 2013 season.
Kick and punt return:
When 2011 started, the Ravens hoped that David Reed would be their long-term solution as a return man. However, Reed had a persistent fumbling problem, and the Ravens ended up platooning the job between players such as Tom Zbikowski, Lardarious Webb, and even Ed Reed. As a result, the Ravens never really developed a consistent return game, with Football Outsiders ranking their kick return and punt return units as 29th and 19th in the league, respectively.
Enter Jacoby Jones. After the Houston Texans cut Jones at the end of the 2011 season (ironically because of his critical fumble against the Ravens in the playoffs), the Ravens picked him up and tabbed him as their new return man. He quickly became one of the most explosive returner in the NFL. Jones' 30.7 average yards per kickoff return led the league and his 9.2 average yards per punt return was 15th in the league. Not only that, he returned a kickoff for a touchdown on the biggest stage imaginable: the Super Bowl.
While Jones was an explosive returner last year, it remains to be seen whether he can keep it up. With reports that he is out of shape, it might be too much to expect Jones to perform at the high level he showed last year. But even if he is worse than he was last year, the Ravens punt and kickoff return should still be better off than they were in 2011 as long as Jones is on the team.
Almost every Ravens fan remembers Billy Cundiff for the disastrous missed kick at the end of the 2011 championship game, but remembering Cundiff simply as someone who blew it in the big moment doesn't do justice to his all-all around terrible play. His 75.7 percentage of field goals madewas 28th in the NFL. Cundiff was, at the end of the day, a below-average kicker who was a pretty huge liability to the success of the Ravens special teams.
The arrival of Justin Tucker took that weakness and turned it into a strength. Tucker entered the 2012 season as an undrafted rookie kicker brought in to compete with Cundiff. By the end of 2012, he was a significant contributor on a Super Bowl team. Tucker completely turned the Ravens sub-par 2011 kicking performance around. He made 90.9 percent of all field goals he attempted in 2012, which was good for 6th in the entire NFL and a 15.2 percentage point increase from the Ravens 2011 percentage.
But even that understates Tucker's superb 2012 season. According to Football Outsiders, once his statistics are adjusted for weather and altitude, Tucker is the second best kicker in the league, behind only Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski. That, plus his dominance when kicking off, led the good people at Football Outsiders to conclude that Justin Tucker was the very best kicker in the league last year.
Tucker looks like he's going to continue his kicking dominance for the foreseeable future. He is still only 23, and has apparently impressed everyone in training camp. It would appear, at least for now, that the Ravens have finally found the long term replacement to Matt Stover that they've been looking for.
Kickoff and punt return coverage:
Like the other special teams units, 2011 was not a good year for the Ravens kickoff and punt return coverage. The Ravens gave up an average of 29.2 yards on each kickoff return, which ranked second-worst in the league. Their punt return coverage wasn't much better, giving up an average of 11.9 yards per punt, which was 24th overall.
The Ravens kickoff and punt return coverage improved in two key ways in 2012. First, they added the special teams Pro Bowler Corey Graham. Second, their rookie heavy special teams roster began the season with another year of experience under their belt. The results were immediate. The Ravens average opponent kickoff return decreased to 23.2 yards, good for 13th overall in the NFL. The Ravens average opponent punt return also decreased to 7.8 yards, good for the 7th best in the NFL. Like every other special teams unit, the Ravens were dramatically better in kickoff and punt return coverage from 2011 to 2012.
The Ravens kickoff and punt return coverage will likely take a step back next year. They are losing two out of their top four special team tacklers in Brendon Ayanbadejo and Sean Considine. But the Pro Bowler Graham remains on the team, and 2011 rookies Anthony Allen and Chykie Brown both became top special team tacklers for the Ravens. So even though the Ravens coverage might not be quite as good as 2012, they still will be quite a bit better than they were in 2011.
The Ravens punter in 2011 and 2012 was Sam Koch, so there wasn't much of a difference between seasons. Koch's gross punting average was 10th in the league in 2011, averaging 46.5 yards per punt. Even though he increased his gross punting average to 47.1 yards per punt, he fell to 12th overall in the league. While Koch was a slightly more accurate punter in 2012, with 7 more punts within the 20 yard line, he was only marginally better than he was in 2011.
Koch has been and remains an above average, but not elite, punter for the Ravens. While there are some reports that he hasn't had a good training camp, the Ravens punting has been relatively stable and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Special teams play in the NFL tends to be very dynamic, fluctuating wildly from year to year. However, it would appear that there are tangible- and more importantly, sustainable- reasons for all of the special teams improvements. So while it can sometimes be difficult to predict the performance of special teams from year to year, I feel fairly confident in saying the Ravens should maintain their top of the league status in 2013.