Matchup: Titans pass offense vs. Ravens pass defense

December 31, 2003|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Each day this week, The Sun will preview matchups for Saturday's Ravens-Titans playoff game.

While NFL practices generally don't vary in importance, today's session for the Tennessee Titans could be viewed as their most significant one of the year.

Pro Bowl quarterback Steve McNair is expected to return after missing the past three weeks of practice and not playing in two of the past three games. The litany of injuries - including a cracked bone spur, right calf muscle strain and a sprained left ankle - are expected to be healed enough to allow McNair to orchestrate an offense as dependent on him as any team is on any individual.

McNair finished as the top-rated passer in the league (100.4), completing 62.5 percent of his throws for 3,215 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

The Titans finished fifth in the NFL in passing.

"Steve McNair has the heart of a lion, a champion," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It is well-documented the injuries that he plays through. They now have a more experienced receiving corps as a whole. They have been explosive."

The Titans run a vertical passing game, one that depends on McNair buying enough time with his feet for their receivers to get behind the secondary.

Justin McCareins has perfected that scenario, leading the AFC with a 17.3 yards-per-catch average while doing much of his damage sneaking behind defensive backs who focus on McNair's running prowess or top receiver Derrick Mason.

But it is Mason who continues to be McNair's favorite target. Mason finished second in the AFC with 1,303 receiving yards on 95 catches and eight touchdowns.

The Ravens may choose to have Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister shadow Mason, a game plan that has proved effective most of the season for the league's No. 4 pass defense.

It is a secondary whose confidence is at a season high after limiting Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox to 108 passing yards (and opposing teams to under 200 yards passing in five straight games).

Tomorrow: Ravens rushing offense vs. Titans rushing defense.

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