With two preseason games left, the Ravens appear to have little clarity in their efforts to find a kick return specialist, and although Michael Campanaro had all three punt return chances against the Colts last weekend, the Ravens aren't ready yet to declare the job his.
Last year's leading returners — Kaelin Clay and Jeremy Ross — are no longer with the team.
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Coach John Harbaugh, the former special teams coach that he is, blasted the Ravens special teams play against the Colts, both in kick returns and in kick coverage.
"We kicked the ball to them, and they kicked the ball to us, and we got our butts kicked," Harbaugh said after the game. "That's unacceptable."
Harbaugh seemed particularly agitated about the Ravens kickoff coverage; the Colts averaged 28.0 yards per kick return, nearly 10 yards better than the Ravens (18.8).
Earlier this week, Harbaugh declared, "We have not found our punt returner or our kick returner yet."
As for kick returns, three running backs — Kenneth Dixon, Terrance West and Stephen Houston — returned kicks at Indianapolis last week with unimpressive results. West had the longest return at 23 yards, and two returns left the Ravens inside their 20-yard line.
The Ravens are giving both West and Dixon a long look as kick returner — Houston is a longshot to make the team — with the idea that a fourth running back could also contribute in the return game. Rookie Tavon Young has also been given reps as a kick returner, though he missed the Colts game with a hamstring injury.
Campanaro headlines a group of punt return candidates that includes former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Campanaro had all three punt return chances against the Colts, with one fair catch and one 21-yard return. Reynolds, who has had an inconsistent camp as a returner, served on the punt coverage team and had a tackle against the Colts but was not back as the return man at all.
Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said Campanaro "showed some real positive things" against the Colts, but Rosburg was not ready to hand him the job yet.
"Michael's out there trying to win the job," Rosburg said after practice on Wednesday. "It's really not his job, it's the returner. The job belongs to the team, and he's trying to get that job."
Expect the auditions for both jobs to continue Saturday night against the Lions.
But on Wednesday, Jay Gruden said that Chris Thompson is also unlikely to play.
Gruden said that Thompson is nursing a sore knee and shoulder and that the team would rather not "have him get banged around."
The coach pointed out it also lets rookies Keith Marshall and Robert Kelley get more snaps as the 'Skins try to determine what they have in the young runners.
In his fourth season out of Florida State, Thompson is a known quantity for Washington.
A skilled receiver out of the backfield, Thompson emerged as a quality third down back for Gruden last year and a trustworthy target for Kirk Cousins out of the backfield.
Gruden also announced that Chris Baker might sit out Friday's game against buffalo. The defensive tackle is batting soreness in his quad.
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Over the past decade the Redskins have tried some different things in their futile efforts to bolster the safety position. They have tried young players, older players, and everything in between while trying to stabilize the back end of their defense.
But they have never tried converting two veteran cornerbacks to safety. Until this year, that is.
DeAngelo Hall has made three Pro Bowls as a cornerback in his 12 years in the NFL. Will Blackmon has played in 81 games at cornerback in his nine NFL seasons. Both are being asked to set aside a lot of the knowledge accumulated over the thousands of snaps that they have played on the edge and move to the middle of the field.
Blackmon said this spring that he never played safety during any of his previous three NFL stops with the Packers, Giants, and Jaguars. Hall lined up at safety towards the end of last year but given the on-the-fly nature of the position switch defensive coordinator Joe Barry and the other coaches tried to make it easier for him.
“We kind of spoon-fed him along last year and had a specific package with specific calls for him,” said Barry. “This offseason, obviously we unleashed the whole playbook at him. I think in the long run, it actually worked out great for him because we didn’t overload him last year, as I said. We kept it pretty simple on him and he was able to make that transition a lot smoother.”
As Barry indicated, Hall will be going from taking a Playing Safety 101 course to being expected to perform at a graduate level. On one level it’s still football and he and Blackmon will be covering and tackling and trying to knock passes down. But unlike the cornerback out on an island a safety is responsible for communicating changes in the defense to the rest of the secondary.
“The way secondary play works is that most communication is from the inside out,” said Barry. “As a corner, you’re usually told what to do; you’re communicated to by your safeties. That was the biggest thing I know for D-Hall, especially a year ago when we moved him because he was like, ‘Wow, I have got to tell everyone what to do instead of receiving information and being told what to do.’ And Will echoed the same thing.”
Certainly they are taking a gamble by having Hall and Blackmon as two of the four safeties they are likely to carry on the roster. But they did give themselves time to properly prepare for their transitions.
“But the good thing is that we made the move,” said Barry. “It wasn’t like we made the move halfway through training camp. We made this decision in the offseason, so they got a full entire offseason, they got a full entire training camp, they are going to have four preseason games under their belt because every day is, ‘Ooh, I learned something new today. Ooh, I saw something new today.’ But I couldn’t be happier with where they’re at right now.”
Well, Hall isn’t going to have four preseason games to get ready. In the two the Redskins have played so far he has played a total of 18 snaps. He won’t play in the fourth preseason game so if he plays a half against the Bills on Friday he will have about 50 snaps under his belt. That’s not even one full game’s worth.
Blackmon has played a total of 58 snaps in the preseason and he could play in the fourth game so he will have more preparation than Hall from that standpoint. It will be interesting to see if Blackmon spells Hall early in the season as the latter player gets his feet under him.