Standing tall at 5 feet 9

Football: Once considered the weak link in the Ravens' secondary, diminutive cornerback Duane Starks has stepped it up to become a big-time player.

Super Bowl Xxxv

Ravens vs. Giants

January 18, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The diminutive figure on the NFL's elite defense, Duane Starks has grown recently.

Once singled out for downfield strikes by opponents, the 5-foot-9 Ravens cornerback took a sizable stand at midseason. It was time to erase the stigmas of being too small, too anxious and too much of a weak link.

Over the past five games, Starks has begun to reshape his reputation from a viable target to a vital playmaker, breaking up 11 passes and delivering five interceptions.

"I took that criticism very personal," Starks said. "It only strengthened me. Maybe I needed it, maybe I didn't. I just maintained my focus on what I had to do and didn't worry about what other people were saying about me. I just had to take the lead and knew what I had to get done."

Starks' biggest statement came in last week's AFC championship victory at Oakland. One of the game's heroes, Starks intercepted two passes and made five tackles.

The first interception led to a Ravens field goal. The second answered a Ravens fumble in their own territory.

"Big-time players make big-time plays in big games," Starks said. "It's very rewarding for a guy who's been through what I've been through. No one believed in me, and I just have to continue to prove myself each and every game."

Said coach Brian Billick: "The fact that he has played as well has probably been sort of a redemption for him, although I hesitate to use that term because I don't know if he needed any vindicating."

It's a remarkable turnaround for Starks in what started as a tragic season.

In Week 2 against Jacksonville, Starks had a role in allowing touchdown catches of 45, 43 and 40 yards to the Jaguars' Jimmy Smith. Each one seemed like a replay, with Starks there to make the play but misjudging the ball at the very end.

It's a memory that motivates him.

"I tend to think about it now and then," Starks said. "But I learned a lot from that game. What I took from that game is Duane Starks, you have to finish every play. That's the thing I didn't do in that game. It really made me look bad."

Starks blamed himself and decided to find the problems by breaking down film alone.

There were times when he peeked in the backfield at the quarterback, which made him lose track of the receivers. Then, there were occasions on the deep throws when he would lunge out for the ball, trying to catch it at a high point rather than taking the extra step to get the best angle.

It became a matter of trusting his instincts rather than gambling.

"I've been very patient picking my spots and letting things happen," Starks said. "Before I was trying to make things happen.

"Even before I got here, I was thinking about how soon will my time come? When will my breakthrough year come in? I've always thought about that. I think this point is the beginning of my breakthrough."

In Oakland, Starks showed his newly found patience on the two interceptions.

His first came in the second quarter on a comeback route by Raiders receiver James Jett. Not in field of vision when quarterback Bobby Hoying released the ball, Starks kept Jett in front of him, then raced from behind to make the pick.

The other happened in the third quarter on a deep pass to Andre Rison. But instead of breaking too early, Starks stayed in stride with Rison before cutting under Rison for the interception.

"I think he's getting a good feel for offenses and route combinations," safety Rod Woodson said. "Those two interceptions, he read those routes before they were ran."

That's been the trend for Starks in the three playoff victories, where he has given teams more reasons not to throw in his direction.

He has surrendered only four completions over 10 yards and none beyond 17 yards. Meanwhile, he has deflected four passes and made two interceptions.

"Over the course of the season, he's taken his game to a whole another level," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "He's finishing all his plays now."

For Starks, it was just time for the small cornerback to make big plays.

"This is every young guy's dream and I believe a couple of old guy's dream, too," Starks said. "To make it to the Super Bowl in my third year and playing as well as I am so far is just amazing right now."

Game data

Ravens (15-4)

vs. N.Y. Giants (14-4)

When: Jan. 28, 6:18 p.m.

Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

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

Line: Ravens by 3

Fast fact: The Ravens outscored their regular-season opponents by 168 points (333-165). The Giants outscored theirs by 82 (328-246).

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