While the title of this story is not meant to disparage the success of the kickoff and punting team's abilities to limit the opponent's return games, the Baltimore Ravens own returners is the focus of this post. The Ravens returners on both kickoff and punt returns have overwhelmingly disappointed the team and its fans, not to mention the inability to put the team in good field position all season long.
In fact, it started in the very first game of the 2010 regular season on national TV when punt returner Tom Zbikowski fielded a New York Jets' punt and proceeded to run backwards towards his own goal line, barely preventing a safety at the last moment. The lack of a return game has cost the Ravens good field position and put the offense in the position of having to sustain long drives in order to score. Furthermore, being pinned deep in their own territory, the Ravens have been forced to punt and thereby set up the opponent's offense on a short field over and over.
It gets even worse. Let's take a look at the stats of our most frequent returners:
Kickoff return "specialist" Jalen Parmele seemed to have the job locked down after his impressive returns in the 2009 season, averaging over 31 yards per return after Lardarius Webb went down to an ACL injury. Webb had been averaging a robust 26.2 yards per return up until that point. However, in 2010, Parmele's production has dropped drastically, as he is only averaging 22.8 yards per return, good for 38th in the NFL. His long has only been 39 yards, certainly not enough to set up his team in good field position, much less never reaching the opponent's side of the field in 17 returns. The other guys who have handled kickoff returns this season are not even as "good" as Parmele has been. Josh Wilson has averaged 19.6 yards on six returns and Tom Zbikowski has returned three kickoffs for a paltry 16.0 yards/return. Meanwhile our kickoff return coverage has been good at only allowing an average of 26.8 yards/return, but not as solid as our opponent's coverage has obviously been.
Unfortunately, the punt return game is a similar story. In 2009, Chris Carr handled a majority of the punt returns, averaging 8.2 yards per return. This season, Zbikowski has handled the bulk of the punt returns, averaging 6.3 yards per return, ranking 42ndin the NFL (ouch), with a long return of 20 yards. That's next to last in the entire league for returners withat least ten chances. Chris Carr is next on the depth chart, with only two returns, averaging 2.7 yards. While our own punt return coverage has been very good, the opponents are averaging a bit better at 8.2 yards per punt return.
This aspect of the Special Teams must improve in order for the Ravens to have a more complete team and give themselves chances to set up the offense in good field position from a short field. The opponent's ability to pin our offense back deep in our own territory will only shift the field position battle to the wrong side of the field and ultimately lead to bad things happening both on offense as well as defense.
The players that might be able to make the difference are either injured, returning from injuries or still on the Practice Squad. However, regardless of who the answer might end up being, it needs to be addressed during this time off, with the Bye week being the perfect chance to "audition" players to step up and improve these disappointing statistics.