PITTSBURGH -- To understand how unsettled the Ravens' receiving corps suddenly has become, all you needed to do was catch a glimpse of the team's practices last week.
Wide receiver Michael Jackson, limited by a shoulder injury, was a bystander. Except for Wednesday, when he practiced before his ankle injury flared up, slot receiver Jermaine Lewis also sat out. Meanwhile, the remaining three receivers -- Derrick Alexander, Ryan Yarborough and James Roe -- looked like chess pieces.
Alexander, who always works as wide receiver, ran some plays out of the slot. Yarborough, Lewis' normal backup in the slot, spent time as a wideout. And Roe, the second-year wide receiver who was waiting for a chance to catch the first pass of his professional career, worked at all three positions.
"That's not the way you normally want to [prepare]. It makes it a little tougher on everybody," Ravens receivers coach Richard Mann said. "But we had to do that to cover all of the bases."
As it turned out, Jackson sat out and Lewis came off the bench in last night's pivotal AFC Central matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. Their statuses were determined after pre-game warm-ups, but that did not affect the Ravens' plans to start Alexander, Yarborough and Roe.
The uncertainty surrounding Lewis -- and especially Jackson -- promised to put more pressure on Alexander to step up as the leader of a younger receiver corps. It also forced the little-used Yarborough and the barely used Roe into the spotlight in a game with huge implications.
"I'm sure they [Yarborough and Roe] will both play in some fashion," said Alexander, who led the Ravens in receptions (42), yardage (567) and was third among NFL receivers with seven touchdowns going into last night's game. "It will be a test. But just because they haven't played a lot doesn't mean we expect anything less from them."
The Ravens know a little about Yarborough, originally a second-round 1994 draft pick of the New York Jets who caught 24 passes for 272 yards over two seasons in a limited role there. He was traded to Green Bay, where he did not see action in 1996. The Ravens claimed him off waivers from the Packers just before training camp last summer.
As Lewis' backup, Yarborough has been reasonably effective, with 10 catches for 102 yards.
"Ryan has played sparingly so far this year. It's almost like this is his rookie year all over again," Mann said.
The same could be said for Roe, the Ravens' sixth-round draft pick in 1996. As a Division II star at Norfolk State, Roe finished a sparkling college career ranked second among all NCAA receivers -- behind Jerry Rice -- with 4,468 yards and fourth in NCAA history with 46 touchdown receptions.
So far in 1997, Roe had returned two kickoffs for 49 yards going into last night. As a receiver, he played for part of the fourth quarter in the Ravens' 36-10 rout of Tennessee in week 4. Before XTC last night, he never had had a pass come his way.
Judging by his huddling with Jackson to go over some game-planning details last week, Roe figured to taste his first professional catch against the Steelers, and he did with a 9-yard reception in the first quarter.
"It went through my mind a few times during the week," Roe said before the game. "I just wanted to get into a good rhythm with Vinny [Testaverde] to show him he can have confidence in me. I've been studying the playbook a little harder.
"If I'm called upon, I just want to play my game, have some fun, and let things fall where they fall."
Said Alexander: "James is a great receiver who hasn't had a chance to play. This will be his chance. It's a big game, so we'll see what he's got."
Pub Date: 11/10/97