Starks makes the grade in first test Rookie cornerback's interception, forced fumble highlight defensive effort

Steelers 20, Ravens 13

September 07, 1998|By Eduardo A. Encina | Eduardo A. Encina,SUN STAFF

Rookie cornerback Duane Starks spent most of the preseason trying to fit into the Ravens' defensive schemes after holding out for the first two weeks of training camp. Doubts lingered over his lack of experience and size at a position where the team needed immediate help.

In yesterday's 20-13 season-opening loss to Pittsburgh, Starks used his NFL debut to show flashes of what is to come. His coverage, tackling and intelligent play in the team's nickel packages helped the Ravens force two turnovers that nearly changed the direction of the game.

Starks was coming off a roller-coaster preseason, with the low point coming Aug. 28 against the New York Giants when he surrendered two long passes.

But yesterday, the 5-foot-10 Starks proved his ability to make the big defensive play.

"This is a part of the learning process," Starks said. "In the preseason, I felt a little bit of pressure, but I am just trying to do my job and do it at 100 percent."

It was assumed that Pittsburgh and quarterback Kordell Stewart would test the Ravens' secondary, especially the unproven rookie corner, but Starks held his own, making three tackles, intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble late in the game.

"Duane made two smart plays," said coach Ted Marchibroda, talking about the interception and forced fumble. "He's a kid that's beyond his age, football-wise."

Tied 3-3 in the first quarter, Starks made the Ravens' first big defensive play of the season.

Starks was step for step with the Steelers' Andre Coleman and out-jumped the receiver for the third-down pass at midfield to turn the ball over to the Ravens' offense.

The play not only stopped a Pittburgh drive, but also briefly gave the Ravens momentum. The drive ended in a missed field-goal try by kicker Matt Stover, his first of three misses.

"The interception helped a lot. It builds up your confidence early in the game and it showed that I could keep up with the receivers in this league both physically and mentally," Starks said.

Some poor special teams play turned a 6-3 deficit into a 20-3 hole, but the rookie continued to make plays. With the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, Starks stuffed Pittsburgh's 240-pound running back Jerome Bettis.

Two plays later Starks made the game's best defensive play. Steelers running back Richard Huntley burst up the middle from the Pittsburgh 40-yard line, broke three tackles in the secondary and appeared on his way to a touchdown.

Starks, who was about 15 yards behind Huntley initially, caught up at the Ravens' 12 and punched the ball out of Huntley's grasp from behind. The ball went high into the air and out of bounds in the back of the end zone, giving the Ravens possession.

The offense scored its only touchdown of the day on the ensuing possession.

"It's all a team effort," Starks said. "That's just me doing a part of what I am supposed to do, do my best and help this team to win games, but today it wasn't enough."

Starks' exciting play not only drew attention, but earned some praise from his teammates.

"He played well," said cornerback Rod Woodson. "The thing I really liked about him today was that he didn't quit. That will probably be the hustle play of the year. You never know what you can do if you never quit and that's what I like about him."

Starks is still getting a handle on the system, especially since he missed several crucial two-a-day practices during training camp, but yesterday, he showed coaches, teammates and fans a little of what they can expect from him.

"I can see an improvement in my game week by week," Starks said. "I thought I never lost confidence. I had a bad game [against the Giants], but there are a lot of things I see now that I didn't see then and that was just a week ago. I am still learning, so I can't say I'm there yet because there is so much that I still haven't seen."

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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