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Tucker turns weakness into strength for Ravens

11:29 AM, Jan 29, 2013   |    comments
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(Sports Network) - The 2011 AFC Championship Game could have been the most devastating loss in Baltimore Ravens history.

Joe Flacco and the Ravens outplayed Tom Brady and Co. in Foxboro but it was the Patriots who narrowly escaped with a 23-20 victory.

A potential go-ahead touchdown pass was knocked from the grasp of Lee Evans and to make matters worse, then-placekicker Billy Cundiff missed an ensuing gimmee field goal attempt which would have tied things in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter and at least given Baltimore a chance to extend its season in overtime.

Both Evans and Cundiff were gone, of course, when the Ravens avenged that defeat this season en route to its matchup with the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday.

Baltimore didn't need any kicks to split the uprights this time around, dominating the Pats in the second half to earn the franchise's second ever Super Bowl appearance. If it did, however, it's a good bet Justin Tucker would have made it.

After all the Ravens reached the AFC title game for the third time in five years by cutting Peyton Manning's first season in Denver short when the club's rookie kicker knocked home a 47-yard field goal, 1:42 into the second overtime period to give Baltimore a dramatic 38-35 victory over the Broncos.

And that was just the latest pressure kick Tucker has made in a freshman season which produced 132 points from the University of Texas product, the third most in team history.

Tucker made 30-of-33 field goal attempts overall in the regular season for a 90.9 percent success rate, the second-best mark in Ravens' history and also second by a rookie kicker in NFL lore behind Minnesota's Blair Walsh, who was 35-of-38 in 2012.

Tucker hasn't had many chances in the postseason, converting the 47-yarder at Mile High and his only other chance, an easy 23-yard attempt, making him a gaudy 32-of-35 overall in his first year as pro.

And if it weren't for Walsh's own extraordinary rookie season Tucker probably would have made a number of All-Pro teams.

Baltimore assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg talked about the comfort Tucker's presence gives to his team and the way his young kicker goes about his job.

"I think Justin has a real good sense that, as a kicker, you're as good as your last kick," Rosburg said. "And he's constantly working to upgrade his game. He understands that the next kick is the most important kick. Whether he made the last one or he missed the last one, the next kick is the most important kick."

Sounds simple but that's easier said than done.

"It's a common theory, but it's really important for a kicker to think that way, and (Tucker) does think that way," Rosburg continued. "When we send him out there to kick, we have great confidence that he's going to make it."

Tucker's mirror in Super Bowl XLVII, San Francisco's David Akers, has the experience edge and the more impressive resume but the six-time All-Pro hasn't been nearly as effective as Tucker this season, something Rosburg has downplayed.

"Every kick has a life of its own. So, you go face that next kick, that's what you do," the coach said when talking about the struggling Akers, who missed an NFL-high 14 field goal attempts in 2012, just one year after banging through an NFL record 44.

That said, Tucker's season as a whole and his approach to his craft has to have Rosburg feeling good, especially if the Super Bowl comes down to one kick.

"The most important confidence that Justin Tucker brings to the kicking game is confidence in himself," Rosburg said. "He can kick, and he knows he can kick, and his teammates know he can kick. So it just keeps growing that way, and we're happy we have him."

Below is a capsule look at the special teams of the Baltimore Ravens:

PUNTER: Sam Koch is looking forward to matching his skills against one of the best in the NFL, San Francisco's three-time Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee. Koch recorded a career-high and franchise-record 47.1 gross punting average this season and also set a team record by producing a 40.8 net average.

"When you go into a game and you punt twice, in a way you get to compete, but you're more or less helping the team out," Koch told the Baltimore Sun. "When you go out there and punt seven or eight times, I don't like to do it because you'd rather see your quarterback out there, but at that point, it becomes competition against that punter because if you have to punt that many times, you've got to be able to flip that field and pin them back and make sure that our defense has a lot of green behind them because if they have that, there's a good chance they're going to be stopping them."

LONG-SNAPPER: Don't underestimate Morgan Cox's steadiness as a long snapper when it comes to Tucker's and Koch's success. Cox, an undrafted free agent out of the University of Tennessee, has been a big upgrade since replacing veteran Matt Katula in 2010.

RETURN GAME: The Ravens generally use Pro Bowl kick returner Jacoby Jones on both punts and kicks. Jones ranked first in the NFL by posting a Ravens' franchise-record 30.7-yard kickoff return average and 9.2 on punts, including three returned for TDs -- two kickoff returns (108 yards and 105 yards) and a punt (63 yards). Jones has generally been bottled up on kickoffs in the postseason, netting 17.3 per return but he's upped his production on punts, averaging 13.7 on six returns. Backup receiver Tandon Doss and veteran safety Ed Reed also take the occasional punt for John Harbaugh's club.

SPECIAL TEAMS DEFENSE: During the offseason, the Ravens signed Corey Graham, who earned special teams Pro Bowl honors with Chicago during the 2011 campaign. In addition to Graham, the Ravens also boast another Pro Bowl special teamer in linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who has made three trips to the NFL's All-Star game. Ayanbadejo (187) and Graham (110) have combined to post 297 special teams tackles during their careers. In 2012, Ayanbadejo posted 14 special teams stops (most on the team), Graham, who started the final eight games at cornerback, totaled six while second-year special teams standout RB Anthony Allen had 12 special teams tackles. After allowing 7.8 yards per punt return and 23.2 on kickoffs in the regular season, Baltimore's coverage units have been shaky in the postseason, allowing 20.9 on punts with a TD and 32.5 on kickoffs with another score. Both returns TDs were by Denver's Trindon Holliday.

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