Once a special teams coach, always a special teams coach.
The day after the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers, 20-17, for their franchise regular-season record eighth straight win, head coach John Harbaugh pointed to three “game-changing plays” on special teams that played a huge role in the win.
The win was the eighth straight for the Ravens (10-2), who assumed the top spot in the AFC after the New England Patriots (10-2) lost at the Houston Texans later that day.
Harbaugh, who cut his teeth as a special teams coach with the Philadelphia Eagles before being hired by the Ravens in 2008, praised his team’s “all-around winning performance” in knocking off the 49ers, who brought a 10-1 record to M&T Bank Stadium, but he made particular note of three special teams plays that helped turn the game in the Ravens’ favor.
After the Ravens’ offense struggled to move the ball in a cold rain, and after the defense uncharacteristically yielded 174 rushing yards — the second-highest total of the season — Justin Tucker’s 49-yard field goal as time expired proved to be the difference.
It was the 15th game-winning kick of Tucker’s career, and it understandably earned most of the accolades.
But Harbaugh also pointed to a partially blocked field goal by Marlon Humphrey on the final play of the first half, and a 62-yard punt by Sam Koch that was downed at the 1-yard line thanks to an acrobatic play by special teams ace Chris Moore, who prevented a touchback by diving into the end zone and knocking the ball backward before it crossed the plane of the goal line.
On the final play of the first half, Humphrey broke free around the left edge of the 49ers’ protection and got a finger on Robbie Gould’s 51-yard field goal, leaving it short in a game that ultimately was decided by three points.
“That’s the difference in the game in the end, if you want look at it that way,” Harbaugh said during his weekly Monday media session on Dec. 2.
Harbaugh said it was simply a matter of Humphrey getting a great jump, beating his blocker and taking a great angle to the ball.
“He deserves all the credit for that,” Harbaugh said.
Then late in the third quarter, Koch pinned the 49ers at their 1-yard line with a booming punt through the rain that Moore chased down just before it reached the end zone. After Moore flew into the end zone and knocked the ball backward, Anthony Levine downed the ball at the 1.
“Great play,” Harbaugh said. “Sam put it down there, the field was a little soft so the ball checked a little bit. Nobody has a better feel for that than Sam Koch. Chris Moore was just … high-tailing it down the field. He was flying.
“He’s got such great awareness. … He knew how to keep his feet, tap that ball, just a great play.”
“Special teams I thought was a big part of the game,” Harbaugh added.
NO. 1 SEED MEANS NOTHING YET: Harbaugh had no reaction to the Ravens’ new position atop the AFC. At 10-2, they own the top position by tiebreaker by virtue of their 37-20 win against the Patriots (10-2). If the season ended today, the Ravens would finish as the AFC’s top seed for the first time in franchise history, but Harbaugh was quick to note that the season isn’t over. The Ravens visit the Buffalo Bills (9-3) this coming week.
“They don’t have a No. 1 seed until they do the seeding,” Harbaugh said, “so that’s four weeks away.”
HARBAUGH: NO FURTHER COMMENT ON HITS ON JACKSON: Harbaugh had a visible shouting match with 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman after quarterback Lamar Jackson was hit along the sideline, and the Ravens were clearly irked by a couple of other hits on their Most Valuable Player candidate. (The 49ers were flagged twice for roughing the passer.)
Asked a day later about the hits, Harbaugh said, “I’m not getting into it. Our job is to protect our quarterback. The officials’ job is to officiate the game. They called two roughing the passer penalties] when he was in the pocket, and that’s just what it is.”
PRAISE FOR MEKARI, OFFENSIVE LINE: Harbaugh praised rookie Patrick Mekari, who made his first career start at center in place of injured center Matt Skura (knee), and the offensive line in general, which held the 49ers No. 1-ranked defense to one sack and two quarterback hits.
Led by Jackson (101 yards), the Ravens totaled 178 rushing yards, none bigger than the 3 yards Jackson earned on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak in the fourth quarter. Jackson powered behind Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda and tackle Orlando Brown to extend what proved to be the final drive of the game.
“I think the offensive line deserves a lot of credit,” Harbaugh said. “That [49ers] front just wreaks havoc against everybody they play and they didn’t do that in our game. Our offensive line did a great job of blunting that and keeping them from playing in our backfield.”
RAVENS WAIVE B. JACKSON: The Ravens announced Dec. 2 that they have waived safety Bennett Jackson, who appeared in four games after being claimed off the New York Jets’ practice squad. Jackson, 28, was something of a feel-good story when he made his NFL regular-season debut earlier this season at Seattle, as it came more than five years after he was a sixth-round draft pick of the New York Giants in 2014.
Jackson spent time on injured reserve and on the practice squads of the Giants and Ravens, and was out of football entirely in 2017 hoping for another chance, which came when the Ravens signed him in 2018. In four games with the Ravens, Jackson totaled two tackles on defense and three on special teams.
Jackson’s release opens up a roster spot, which could be used on safety Brynden Trawick, who has been designated to return from injured reserve, although the Ravens made no such announcement yet.
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