Equation is air plus for Titans

They add Thigpen, Pickens, while Ravens subtract hurt Herring

Ravens expect spread look

Sub Harris confident, cites team chemistry

January 06, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Tennessee's passing attack can be likened to a game of poker. The Titans added two face cards to their hand late in the season. The Ravens have lost one, but they aren't close to folding.

The Ravens invade Adelphia Coliseum tomorrow for an AFC divisional playoff game. The Titans have been bolstered by a first-round bye and the return of wide receivers Carl Pickens and Yancey Thigpen, former Pro Bowlers who ended the regular season coming off the bench. The Ravens, conversely, will be without strong safety Kim Herring, who will miss the game with a bruised ankle he suffered in last Sunday's wild-card win over Denver.

The Ravens have made a habit of stuffing Titans running back Eddie George, and they are prepared for the possibility that coach Jeff Fisher and quarterback Steve McNair might not wait until third-and-long to spread the field and flush additional wide receivers into their secondary.

"They play three or four wideouts, then you throw in [tight end Frank] Wycheck, and it's a little tougher to run from that configuration," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I know going into this season, the feeling was that they had all of these wide receivers, and that they would look to be vertical. If they had all been healthy, that may be how they would have evolved.

"They have had plenty of time to develop, and we'll have to adjust on the sideline."

Thigpen came to Tennessee in 1998 from Pittsburgh, and helped the Titans reach the Super Bowl last season. Pickens, who spent eight distinguished albeit disgruntled seasons in Cincinnati, was Tennessee's free-agent catch last August. A recurring hamstring problem took Pickens out of the lineup in October and made Derrick Mason a starter. Thigpen, also bothered by a hamstring, has not started this season.

Mason leads the Titans' wide receivers with 63 receptions, and Chris Sanders has 33. Pickens, who did not play in either regular-season meeting with the Ravens, and Thigpen, who was inactive for four games in October and November, combined for 25 catches. Given the relative rustiness of those two veterans, the man who will replace Herring in the Ravens' starting lineup doesn't anticipate a change in philosophy and a flood of wide receivers from Tennessee.

"One of the most underrated things in professional football is team chemistry," Corey Harris said. "You've got guys coming back who haven't played much all year. Regardless of how much individual talent they have, if they're not mixing in well with their offense or their timing isn't down, it doesn't do any good."

In passing situations, the Ravens have typically used seven defensive backs, pulled their tackles, placed Rob Burnett over the center and moved linebacker Peter Boulware to end. While Harris spent the regular season shading the tight end on third-and-long, that responsibility now falls on second-year pro Anthony Poindexter.

While Poindexter's NFL experience consists of special teams duty, Wycheck had 70 catches this season, which upped the former Maryland star's career haul to 388.

"We have 53 guys on this roster for one reason," free safety Rod Woodson said. "Those guys are on the roster to step up in situations like this and play in the game. If you don't think those guys can play, you shouldn't keep them on the roster. We believe everyone on our roster can play. People have to step up to the table, and when they get in there, play well."

McNair threw for just 101 yards in the Titans' 14-6 win at PSINet Stadium on Oct. 22. Three weeks later, he passed for 228 yards in the Ravens' landmark 24-23 win at Tennessee. Woodson said "you've got to have a more balanced attack in the playoffs," and given the Ravens' retooled secondary, cornerback Duane Starks foresees more passes from McNair.

"They would probably spread out our defense a little more than they have in the past," Starks said. "They have all of their receivers back just about healthy, and they have the advantage of the week off. We've lost some experience in the backfield, but we've just got to fight that. That's the thing we've been doing all year."

Game data

Ravens (13-4) at Tennessee (13-3)

Where: Adelphia Coliseum, Nashville, Tenn.

When: Tomorrow, 12:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Weather forecast: 20 percent chance of afternoon showers. Highs 40 to 45.

Line: Titans by 6

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