BALTIMORE — Place kicker Justin Tucker’s locker is smack in the middle of the Baltimore Ravens’ locker room — the defense on one side, the offense on the other. Punter and holder Sam Koch has the locker right next to his and long-snapper Morgan Cox is next to Koch.
That may explain why Tucker always says ‘we’ — glancing in Koch and Cox’s direction — when he is asked to explain his remarkable accuracy, most notably under pressure.
“Sometimes during two-a-days I run into the locker room without a drop of sweat on me, and all the other guys are ready to drop from the heat,” Tucker said, smiling, late on Sunday afternoon after he had kicked four field goals in the Ravens’ 19-3 pummeling of the New York Jets.
“I always like to say my exhaustion is mental.” He glanced at Koch and Cox. “We’re just glad to have the chance to serve.”
Tucker has done a lot more than serve since he replaced Billy Cundiff as the Ravens’ kicker before last season. The four kicks he made on Sunday, the last one a 53-yarder that would have been good from 60 yards, gave the Ravens a 12-3 lead that had to look insurmountable to a Jets team that never seriously threatened the goal line throughout the cold, windswept afternoon in M&T Bank Stadium.
At times, it was hard to believe this was a game with playoff implications. The Ravens improved to 5-6, meaning they are in a six-way tie for the second wild-card spot in the AFC along with the Jets, Dolphins, Chargers, Titans and Steelers — who will be here on Thanksgiving night.
Other than Joe Flacco’s windblown 66-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with five seconds left in the third quarter, there wasn’t a lot that could pass for artistic during the course of the afternoon. The conditions played a role, but so did the offenses. The Jets, with rookie quarterback Geno Smith seemingly regressing each week, ran the Wildcat formation frequently, often snapping the ball directly to Josh Cribbs — who has gone from unemployed six weeks ago to being a key cog in Rex Ryan’s sputtering offense. The Ravens responded by snapping the ball to backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor five times, splitting Flacco wide when they did.
Ravens Coach John Harbaugh, looking for something good to say about a running game that has struggled all season, said his team had run the ball “somewhat effectively” on Sunday. Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce and Taylor had a total of 31 rushes for 67 yards, an average of 2.2 yards per carry.
Flacco, who has had to run for his life for much of the season behind a disappointing offensive line, was sacked four times and threw his 14th interception of the season. He was also clearly not thrilled with being sent off to slot or wide receiver purgatory, even for a handful of plays. “It’s good and fun for a little bit, but that’s it,” he said. “I don’t want to be lining up at Z or X [receiver slots]. I want to line up at quarterback.”
Clearly, the Ravens need him at quarterback, but with an often less-than-effective running game, Harbaugh and his coaches find themselves searching for innovative ways to move the football. Frequently, their best offense comes through the defense or special teams. This team’s M.O. may have been summed up best by how it extended its 9-3 halftime lead early in the third quarter.
First, the Ravens went three and out on the opening possession of the half, failing to pick up a first down on a third and one when Rice was stuffed. Koch got off a 64-yard punt that rolled dead on the New York 2-yard-line. The defense stopped the Jets, and Jacoby Jones returned the punt 20 yards to the Jets 33. The Ravens’ offense then lost two yards on three plays. Tucker came in and drilled the 53-yard field goal.
Two possessions, no first downs, a net gain of seven yards and a pickup on the scoreboard of three points. Ravens football 2013.
Harbaugh is not a big fan of questions that go too far beyond blocking and tackling, so when he was asked if it helped his team psychologically knowing it has a kicker who can put points on the board from almost anywhere on the plus side of midfield, he shook his head.
“Psychological?” he said. “Wrong guy to ask that.” He smiled. “It certainly helps us every time Tuck makes a kick. That helps.”
Later, standing in the locker room, Harbaugh relented a little bit. “Knowing that he can give us points from maybe 10 yards further out than some other guys certainly helps us,” he said. “He’s got a strong leg and he’s accurate.”
Half-jokingly he added, “There are a lot of great kickers in the league right now. They might just narrow the goal posts sometime soon.” He smiled. “It would make it interesting if they did, wouldn’t it?”
Last January, when Corey Graham’s interception of Peyton Manning in the first of two overtimes in Denver gave the Ravens the ball on the Denver 45, they picked up one first down and made little attempt to pick up another. They ran the ball three times to the 29-yard line and sent their rookie kicker in to kick a 47-yarder in frigid conditions on the road with the season on the line.
The kick was never in doubt.
“Every kick you have to be totally prepared mentally,” Tucker said, shrugging off the extraordinary pressure on that postseason game-winner. “If you don’t want the ball in those circumstances you’re in the wrong business.”
Koch was leaning in Tucker’s direction, clearly eavesdropping. “And we’re all happy,” Tucker said, raising his voice, “to serve this team.”
Their services have never been needed more than right now.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.