McNair keeps Clayton busy

Second-year receiver emerging as QB's favorite target, team's best deep threat

Gameday

December 25, 2006|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,Sun reporter

PITTSBURGH -- Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason half-joked that he was watching the scoreboard at Heinz Field here because he had nothing else to do.

Blame wide receiver Mark Clayton, who caught seven passes for 108 yards and a touchdown and emerged as quarterback Steve McNair's favorite target in yesterday's 31-7 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"He's made tremendous strides," Mason said of Clayton. "Coach [Brian] Billick is looking for him, and that's just a testament to what he's doing on the field. He's making plays, and the O.C. [offensive coordinator] is making sure that he's designing plays to get him open and in a position where he has an opportunity to catch the ball."

Clayton's performance has solidified his standing as perhaps the Ravens' most significant big-play weapon on offense.

The 22nd overall pick in the 2005 draft leads all receivers with four 100-yard games this season. Clayton has led the team in receiving in five games - a team high - and has scored five times, which trails tight end Todd Heap's team-leading six receiving touchdowns.

Still, Clayton declined to accept much credit for his personal success.

"Coming in here, I really wanted to win," he said. "Whenever they call on me, I want to be prepared and make sure that I'm ready. When they make the call and need a play, I'm there. However I have to do it, I don't care."

Clayton, who has three of the offense's longest four touchdowns, added another when he caught a 35-yard pass from McNair on a deep post route down the middle with four seconds left in the first quarter.

That score gave the Ravens a 7-0 lead and seemed to drain the energy out of a Pittsburgh crowd frenzied about a possible upset of the AFC North Division champions.

"It was huge for us," Clayton said. "We knew coming in that it was going to be a fight. We knew the environment was going to be electric, and for us to get the fans out of it was huge. To come out and go on top early was good for us."

Six of McNair's first eight passes went to Clayton, who caught five and had 87 yards before the start of the second quarter.

Clayton's final reception of the game - early in the third quarter that put him over the 100-yard mark - was a classic example of his athleticism as Clayton leaped to his right, pulled in a pass with his fingertips, and gained 11 yards.

The only downer to Clayton's day was a pass from McNair that bounced off Clayton's hands and into those of Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend, who returned the interception to the Ravens' 40-yard line with 1:51 left in the half. Pittsburgh then scored to cut the Ravens' lead to 14-7.

"I laughed about it because I know that every time something happens with this team, it's not about the mess-ups, but how we pick each other up after the mess-ups," Clayton said. "I was like, `Aw, man, I messed up.' ... [But] everybody came up and said, `It's all right, it's all right. That's cool.' It happens."

Clayton's progress in the Ravens' offense was foreseen by Mason, who cited Clayton's four-game stretch in the latter portion of his rookie season last year when he caught 21 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns.

"He made strides last year," Mason said. "He's the type of guy that's only going to get better as his career goes on. So it's not a shock to me what he's able to do, and like I said, the O.C. is looking for him now, and he's designing things for him and allowing him to go out there and make plays."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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