Stover: best foot forward?

Kicker might have to one-up Mare for Ravens to top Miami

September 15, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

In a battle of two of the NFL's best red-zone defenses, Sunday night's Ravens-Miami Dolphins game might be decided by a red-hot foot.

Will it be Ravens kicker Matt Stover, the consistent veteran? Or will it be Miami's Olindo Mare, the prolific up-and-comer?

Considering that both team's strengths reside on defense, the million-dollar legs of Stover and Mare may prove valuable for putting up points on offense and controlling field position on kickoffs.

"Mare is going to kick well, flat-out," Stover said. "Am I out there after Mare, after him as an individual? Absolutely not. But if his kicks are going into the end zone, I've got to put them into the end zone. If he hits one field goal, you've got to come back and hit one."

In his 11th season, Stover has laid the foundation for a career year.

He leads the league with 22 straight field goals made along with four touchbacks on kickoffs. One week after scoring nine of the Ravens' 16 points in the opener, Stover kicked a 44-yard, fourth-quarter field goal in a 39-36 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"I feel like it's going to be [one of] my largest opportunities this year," Stover said. "I know that this team is going to need every point I can put up. Not because we're not a good team, but just because how much parity there is in the league."

Mare, though, already has made a spot for himself in the Hall of Fame in just his fourth year.

After he converted his NFL-record 39th field goal last season, he now has his shoe on display in Canton, Ohio. The Pro Bowl kicker also accounted for 144 of the team's 326 points last year and is one of three Dolphins on this season's media guide cover.

"After a year like last year, you expect to be so much better," said Mare, who signed a one-year tendered contract worth $1.027 million. "If I miss, I'm shocked. It's like, there is no way I should miss a field goal."

But kickoffs at Miami's Pro Player Stadium can lead to dangerous territory.

With the stadium housing the Marlins as well as the Dolphins, teams have to kick off on dirt rather than grass because of the baseball diamond configuration. That's why Stover has done some research, chatting with Kansas City and former Dolphins kicker Pete Stoyanovich as well as Tampa Bay's Martin Gramatica about the type of shoes they wore for games at Pro Player.

So far with the Ravens, kickoffs have been a hit-or-miss proposition. On the positive side, Stover already has one more touchback than all of last season. But take them away and the Ravens have allowed opponents to average their starts at the 33-yard line.

Last Sunday, Stover had three consecutive short kickoffs after undercutting the ball, before fixing the problem to finish with two touchbacks in the second half. After his last one sailed seven yards into the end zone, he was first greeted on the sideline by a high-five from linebacker Ray Lewis.

"The accuracy is great; the touchbacks have been great," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "What we can't have is the 20- and the 15-yard-line kickoffs that we've had. And he knows that. He gets very frustrated when he does that.

"He's got to get into that rhythm. He's like a golfer in that routine. Until he gets that rhythm, it's a struggle. He just puts so much pressure on the kickoff team for them to field that at the 15-yard line."

Billick served notice to Stover last year, when he brought in Joe Nedney on Oct. 6 after being displeased with Stover's inconsistent kickoffs and some ill-timed field-goal misses. But Stover, who dealt with similar tests twice previously in his career, isn't easily rattled and Nedney was later released.

Stover never missed after October, connecting on his final 18 field goals to end with a career-best 116 points. His current streak of 22 straight is one shy of the longest of his career and stands 18 away from Gary Anderson's league record.

Stover, who signed a four-year, $4 million contract in March, said he believes this consistency has changed Billick's attitude toward him. On Sunday, he may have a chance to prove it again in outshining Mare.

"My point to the whole issue is what I've got to do is perform to the best of my capabilities," Stover said. "Brian knows that, I know that. And he knows how well I can perform now. He was unsure of it last year. But as he saw and he came to know, I've been in the league 11 years for a reason."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Miami Dolphins

Site: Pro Player Stadium, Miami

When: Sunday, 8:35 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 2, ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Ravens by 2 1/2

Getting his kicks

Ravens kicker Matt Stover has the NFL's longest current field-goal streak at 22, one shy of his career best. A look at the league's best current kicking streaks:

Kicker Team FGs

Matt Stover Ravens 22

Al Del Greco Titans 11

Ryan Longwell Packers 10

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