Defense lines up, rises to occasion Washington fills in for defensive end McCrary with look of a starter

December 15, 1997|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

As last week wore on, Keith Washington sensed his big chance was coming. As the soreness in starting right defensive end Michael McCrary's left knee persisted, Washington's practice time increased, while McCrary became a midweek spectator.

And by yesterday's pre-game warm-ups, Washington knew he would be seeing considerable playing time in McCrary's place. What Washington could not know is how vital his contribution would be in the Ravens' 21-19 victory over Tennessee.

Washington, who was signed Oct. 15 to add depth to the defensive line, made the Ravens look pretty smart all day by playing like a bona fide starter. And after recording six tackles and a sack, forcing a fumble by Oilers quarterback Steve McNair to set up a touchdown and deflecting a fourth-and-goal McNair pass to save another score, Washington did his best to talk down his heroic afternoon.

"I don't think one game puts you over the hump. You have to do it week after week," Washington said. "Once you develop that consistency, you become a bona fide player in this league. Hopefully, I can continue to make plays. That would give me something to hold onto. I'm pleased with some things I did today, but overall, I've got a long way to go."

Washington's performance punctuated a gutty showing by a wounded, undermanned defensive line that, by game's end, was down to four bodies, including one healthy starter.

And speaking of veteran tackle James Jones -- all he did was rack up seven tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery on Washington's sack of McNair -- is there a more underrated player in the Baltimore locker room?

"James is the heart and soul of this defensive line," Washington said.

Jones was the glue who held together a ship that was sinking soon after leaving port. First of all, defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, still recovering from hand surgery, did not dress for the game. Then McCrary, who tore cartilage in his left knee during last week's Seattle victory, came up lame.

Early in the first quarter, starting left end Rob Burnett then went down with a contusion in his left ankle tendon. Burnett left the field for X-rays and never returned to action. On top of that, backup tackle Larry Webster, who started in place of Siragusa, was hampered throughout the day with injuries to his ribs, ankle and knee.

That left the Ravens to battle Tennessee up front with such unproven players as Washington and third-year backup Mike Frederick, who shuffled from end to tackle and back to end. It forced the Ravens to move linebacker Peter Boulware to defensive end more often than they had planned. Even barely used rookie end Chris Ward got some playing time.

The Ravens' mostly second-string front bent often but never withered in the face of Tennessee's 190-yard ground game. The defense was on the field for nearly 38 minutes, but found a way to stop the Oilers in crunch time.

"For a minute there, I didn't know what was going on. We lost a lot of guys today," Jones said. "But we all had to dig down and find something extra to help the team win. Other guys stepped up. I always take pride in what I do."

Jones, who has toiled quietly in the massive shadow of Siragusa this year, revealed himself as an indispensable part of the Ravens' 4-3 scheme. As he has done all year, Jones occupied enough blockers to allow middle linebacker Ray Lewis to record a game-high eight tackles.

He also teamed up with Washington on the game's critical sequence. With 9: 30 left and the Ravens clinging to a 14-12 lead, McNair dropped back inside his 20 on a third-and-eight. As McNair scrambled to his right, Washington came around from the far side and slapped the ball loose as he hit McNair. Jones fell on the fumble, setting up Eric Zeier's 15-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Alexander on the next play.

"I think James Jones is our unsung hero," said Webster, who had five tackles in Siragusa's place. "He does every job he has to do."

As for Washington, a third-year player out of Nevada-Las Vegas who had never started a game before yesterday, the Ravens probably will get another long look at him in next week's season finale in Cincinnati.

McCrary, depressed about his injury, perked up once he began talking about the Ravens' replacements.

"Did they do a great job or what? Most of those guys didn't even expect to play today," McCrary said. "They went in and held a pretty good offensive line. They're my heroes today."

Pub Date: 12/15/97

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