Ravens take straight road with secondary

Rams' Holt, Bruce force end to waffling on lineup

November 06, 2003|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

The Ravens are not playing tricks with their secondary this week.

There is no confusion about what position Gary Baxter will play, no games about Corey Fuller's health and no pretense about how much playing time Will Demps will get Sunday night against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome.

Rather than being coy, coaches have set the defensive backfield, and Baxter, who played solidly in Sunday's 24-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, will start his second straight game at cornerback and be assigned, along with Chris McAlister, the task of containing the top receiving duo in the league in Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.

Demps will start for Baxter at safety and the Ravens will use Fuller, who is questionable with groin and hamstring injuries, sparingly in four-receiver sets. Tom Knight will be the nickel (fifth) defensive back.

"It was important that we set it so everybody's mind can be clear to pay attention to what they are supposed to do," secondary coach Donnie Henderson said.

Is that ever important this week. The Rams have thrown for more than 330 net passing yards in three of their past four games. They lead the NFL, averaging 288.1 yards a game in that category, and are also first in yards-per-game average (374.5).

Starting quarterback Marc Bulger is second in the NFC with 2,086 passing yards, and Holt is 22 yards shy of 1,000 receiving yards halfway through the year to lead the league.

Of Bruce's 43 catches, 33 have converted first downs, 11th highest in the NFC.

Those numbers forced Baxter into the film room Monday, a couple of days earlier than normal. Henderson started in on the Rams two days before the Jaguars game.

"They are the No. 1 team in offense, and you have to respect that," Baxter said. "You don't want to go out there half-stepping. You want to be well prepared."

For the Ravens, that preparation is focused on limiting the number of big plays downfield. The Jaguars completed only one pass for more than 20 yards - a rather meaningless, 27-yard completion to Jimmy Smith - and the Ravens have allowed just nine other 20-yards-or more catches by receivers this season.

The key to taking away the deep ball, according to Baxter, lies in staying aggressive. Holt, Bruce and third-receiver Dane Looker all weigh less than 200 pounds.

"We're going to get up on the line and press them, and may the best man win," Baxter said. "They're the fastest show on turf, but Chris McAlister is fast. I'm fast. We've got speed to match up with those guys, too. We're definitely not going to play off of them and be nonchalant with them. We're going to get up in their face."

Chances are, the Ravens will have McAlister follow Holt all over the field. McAlister has drawn the opposition's top receiver in Jimmy Smith and the Denver Broncos' Rod Smith the past two weeks and only been beat for the 27-yarder.

Holt is coming off a 200-yard performance in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers and has caught a touchdown pass in five straight games. He and Bruce have a combined 27 catches for 20 yards or more this season.

What the Rams present, first and foremost, is speed, and in Holt, exceptional quickness at the line of scrimmage.

"[Holt] is an explosive receiver and does a good job of getting in and out of his breaks," McAlister said.

"But we've been physical since the season started. As I can remember, what we do is get up and play bump-and-run. The bottom line is, we have talent and they have talent, and the talent itself is going to cancel out. It's going to be about who executes their game plan and has the best technique that day."

That approach has worked for much of this season, despite the injuries to Fuller and Knight. The Ravens are ninth in the league against the pass (188.6 yards a game), and the secondary has allowed just two 100-yard receivers (Pittsburgh's Plaxico Burress and Cincinnati's Chad Johnson) this season.

"As far as our preparation, the thing we're going to do is go by what we saw on tape and try and understand their route combinations and prepare like we normally would," Henderson said. "The difference being, I think we got some playmakers on defense. I know they got some playmakers on offense.

"I'm willing to say it's playmakers against playmakers this week, and I like my chances."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (5-3) vs. St. Louis Rams (5-3)

Site: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis

When: Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 24, ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Rams by 7

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