Steel Town good to Ismail

Ravens wide receiver out to continue run of big games in Pittsburgh

When in Pittsburgh, Ismail has caught some big games

November 02, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Qadry Ismail is a physical fitness freak. If there's a New Age therapy or contraption on the market, chances are he has tried it, but the Ravens wide receiver is a traditionalist on one front: He loved playing at Three Rivers Stadium.

On Sunday, the Ravens will attempt to become the first visiting team to win at Heinz Field, the Steelers' new home. Their two-game win streak in Pittsburgh, normally an inhospitable stop for out-of-towners, is linked to some breakout games from Ismail.

"Who knows what Heinz Field has to offer?" Ismail said of his success in Pittsburgh, where he has totaled 13 catches, 360 yards and four touchdowns the past two years. "I don't know what to say, other than I've been in the right place at the right time. I feel good about the performances I've had in Pittsburgh, but I'm not going to say I have it all figured out."

More never-was than has-been heading into the 1999 season - he didn't have a single catch in 1997 and '98 - Ismail has transformed himself into the best wide receiver on a Super Bowl-winning team.

Winding down what had been a good - but hardly great - season when the Ravens went to Pittsburgh in December 1999, Ismail busted loose with six catches for 258 yards and a third-quarter highlight show that included touchdown receptions of 54, 59 and 76 yards.

That 31-24 win was the closest call the Ravens had in a four-game win streak that reversed the franchise's direction, and it began a season-ending, four-game stretch into which Ismail crammed 24 of his 68 catches. It was more of the same in the 2000 opener, as Ismail had seven catches for 102 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown, in a 16-0 win at Pittsburgh.

The setting meant as much as the statistics to Ismail. Pittsburgh is called Steel Town and it likes hard-nosed football; when coach Brian Billick gave him a chance two years ago, Ismail was viewed as being soft.

"If they [the Steelers] were dead last in every category, people would say, `You got lucky,' that it was no big deal," Ismail said of his past two visits to Pittsburgh. "To do it against a quality defense, that helps solidify things, but I really don't like to dwell on what I've done there. When my career stalled, I learned that I don't care how many balls I've caught, the next game is the most important game of my life. My career is on the line every week."

Ismail will turn 31 Thursday, but said he feels as if his career is just getting started.

Linebackers coach Jack Del Rio was a Vikings teammate when Ismail broke into the NFL in 1993, and before this season, the two talked about how the Ravens' go-to wide-out had finally grasped all the demands and nuances of his position. Ismail has strengthened his body and mind to the point where offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh challenges him to be mentioned as one of the game's top receivers.

"He wants to be one of the elite receivers in the league," Cavanaugh said. "He understands it's an ongoing quest. Every week, you have to prove yourself. I don't know if anybody in the league puts him in the elite category, but I think he's got the potential. He's got all the tools."

Ismail dipped to 49 catches last season, when tight end Shannon Sharpe was added as the primary receiver and the attack revolved around running back Jamal Lewis. Now, he's on pace for a career year, and it goes beyond schemes.

A week after he torched the Steelers in Pittsburgh last year, Ismail sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, and limped through the 2001 season. Back home in Boca Raton, Fla., he made a substantial commitment to off-season conditioning, and Ismail said added toughness is one reason he played through the deep thigh bruise he suffered on his first reception against the Chicago Bears. He finished the opener with six catches for 88 yards.

"If it had been 1997, I don't think I would have come back to the game," Ismail said. "My mind-set of old would have been, `I made that play. Everybody look at me!' Now I say, `No one cares, get back in the game.' I've had some critics weigh down on me, and I've learned to flip the script. I welcome their remarks. That's fuel to not come out of the game."

Ismail had a good rapport with quarterback Tony Banks, and the switch to Trent Dilfer last season did not sit well with him. This year, he's been unflappable.

He had seven catches for 85 yards at Cleveland, where Elvis Grbac was the starter, and duplicated those numbers Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, when Randall Cunningham went the distance. The last catch was one of the biggest of his career; his dive for a 2-yard touchdown got the Ravens an 18-17 win. He has 33 catches for 536 yards and four touchdowns, and he's on pace for career highs in all three categories.

"I don't want to lose what I have now," Ismail said. "I have a great appreciation for this game."

Especially the way it has treated him in Pittsburgh.

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