The Ravens may have finished with a losing record for just the second time in the John Harbaugh era, but their special teams ranked as the NFL’s very best in 2021, according to two reputable sources.
Baltimore finished first in longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin’s 2021 special teams report, which ranks the league’s 32 teams in 22 kicking game categories and assigns points based on their statistical order of finish. This marks the eighth time in the last nine seasons that the Ravens have finished in Gosselin’s top five as they also topped the rankings in 2015.
The Ravens finished first in five categories, in the top five in four others, and in the top 10 in five other areas, a credit to special teams coordinator Chris Horton’s units led by All-Pro kicker Justin Tucker and All-Pro punt returner Devin Duvernay, who will both play in next month’s Pro Bowl. Earlier this month, Tucker received first-team All-Pro honors for the fifth time in his brilliant career despite Baltimore moving on from four-time Pro Bowl long snapper Morgan Cox last offseason and handing those reins to Nick Moore, who didn’t skip a beat in his first full season on the job.
The No. 1 spot in the Gosselin special-teams rankings coincided with the Ravens finishing first in special teams DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), the efficiency metric developed by Football Outsiders that’s widely recognized and valued around the league. The ESPN Football Power Index ranked Baltimore second in special teams’ expected point margin and fourth in efficiency.
“It’s about winning games. How can we help our team win football games, and are we doing those things?” Horton said last month. “We’re creating good plays. And I tell these guys all the time in our phase of the game, good is good, but we want to be great because if we create great plays, then we’re changing the game. We want to make sure we continue to do that.”
It’s no secret that the Ravens have long valued special teams under Harbaugh, who served as a college and NFL special teams coordinator for the better part of two decades before becoming Baltimore’s head coach in 2008, but how closely did these rankings correlate to winning in 2021?
Of the teams finishing in the top half of the Gosselin rankings this season, Kansas City (No. 4), Dallas (No. 6), Buffalo (No. 8), Las Vegas (No. 11), Cincinnati (No. 12), and the Los Angeles Rams (No. 16) qualified for the playoffs. Meanwhile, just five of the top 16 teams in special teams DVOA — the Chiefs, Rams, Cowboys, Bengals, and Philadelphia — qualified for the 2021 postseason. Ten of the top 16 teams in offensive DVOA and nine of the top 16 in defensive DVOA made the playoffs this season.
This should come as little surprise since offense and defense carry much more value than the third phase responsible for only 25 to 30 plays per game. For context, ESPN’s FPI calculated the top-ranked Tampa Bay and Kansas City offenses as having an expected point margin of 6.4 over opponents and the top-ranked New Orleans defense with an expected point margin of 4.0, but its top special teams unit, Buffalo, had an expected point margin of just 0.8 over opponents.
In the case of the 2021 Ravens, their superb special teams couldn’t overcome the many injuries and deficiencies on both offense and defense that led to their downfall, but this phase certainly mattered around the margins, helping to win tight games and keep others close with Baltimore playing 12 contests decided by a single possession. Of course, Tucker and the outstanding kicking game were the reason why some objected to Harbaugh going for game-winning 2-point conversions at the end of regulation against Pittsburgh and Green Bay rather than kicking the extra point and playing for overtime.
Roster decisions driven by special teams have occasionally frustrated fans over the years and one could fairly argue that mindset hurting their depth on offense or defense from time to time, but a franchise that boasts multiple Pro Bowl kickers and return specialists as well as a number of pinnacle moments on special teams over its 26-year history isn’t about to devalue the third phase of the game — nor should it.