Ravens' backs looking forward to Rams passing game

OWINGS MILLS - Before spirals begin accelerating toward him, Gary Baxter plans to implement an approach based on aggression. Or is it recklessness? Even though the Baltimore Ravens have an impending encounter with the aerial-inclined, multi-dimensional St. Louis Rams on Sunday night at Edward Jones Dome, Baxter and the rest of the secondary say they won't deviate from their usual style: press coverage.

That means Baxter and fellow cornerback Chris McAlister will line up inches from prolific St. Louis receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and stare them down for hints of play recognition.  Once the football is snapped, the Baltimore defensive backs will try to use their superior size and strength to jam Holt and Bruce to disrupt their patterns. Then, they'll attempt to match the receivers' speed and shiftiness, step for step. That's quite a risk against the top-ranked offense in the league.

Yet, conceding short routes to Holt, who leads the league in receptions and yards while tied with Randy Moss for the most touchdown catches, and Bruce could be problematic, too, because of their ability to run after the catch. "They've got speed and we've got speed, so we're going to press them and may the best man win," said Baxter, who said he is likely to make his second start in a row at cornerback in place of injured veteran Corey Fuller. "They've got the fastest show on turf. We've got the speed to match up with these guys.
"We're definitely not going to be nonchalant with them. We're going to be up in their face all day. It's going to be a one-on-one battle."

To reduce the pressure on the defensive backs, the Ravens are aware they need to generate a pass rush on quarterback Marc Bulger, known for his rapid release, to keep the Rams from transforming this football game into a track meet.

Although the Rams faltered badly in a 30-10 loss last week to the San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis (5-3) remains a seven-point favorite over Baltimore (5-3). This game pairs two polar opposites as the Ravens feature the top-ranked running game in the league behind Jamal Lewis. St. Louis counters with the best passing game in the NFL with an offense that ranks first overall with 374.5 yards a game. "If you let them get separation, it's going to be a long day," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "They try to wear you out with their multiple formations and their incessant, down-the-field throwing the ball. We try to wear you out another way. It's a great contrast that's going to make for great theater."

Holt is the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Month.  He caught 11 passes for 200 yards last week with 45 receptions for 735 yards and seven scores in the last five games.  This fall, Holt has 63 catches for 978 yards and nine touchdowns, surpassing luminaries like Hall of Famer Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, Jack Snow and running back Marshall Faulk on the Rams' all-time receptions chart. "Explosive receiver, does a good job of getting in and out of his breaks," McAlister said. "They do a good job of spreading it around. It's not just Torry Holt."

Bruce, the Rams' career leader in most receiving categories, has 43 receptions for 692 yards. Baltimore will likely have to deal with the potentially-explosive Faulk, who's expected to return from a knee injury this week.

The Ravens' defense ranks sixth overall, 10th against the pass with 11 interceptions, allowing 11 passing touchdowns, 188.6 passing yards a game. "I think [McAlister] is one of the best corners in the NFL," Holt said. "I think he should be a Pro Bowler. He feels like he can guard any wide receiver in the league. I think Ed [Reed] has the potential to be a Pro Bowl safety.  "I think Baxter can create a terrific challenge. He's a big, rangy kid and has some quickness."

Since replacing former NFL MVP Kurt Warner after a concussion, Bulger has completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,086 yards, 12 touchdowns, nine interceptions and ranks third in the NFC with a 90.3 passer rating. "There's a reason why he's starting over Kurt Warner," said Reed, who has a team-high four interceptions. Bulger completed 26 of his 42 passes for 378 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions last week. He has a 113.4 rating on third downs and leads the NFC in yards gained per pass with an 8.05 average. "He has an excellent presence in the pocket, great vision and he does have a quick release," Billick said. "Their offense is predicated on getting the ball out on timing. You have to disrupt that timing or you don't have much of a chance."

Disrupting that timing could center on a pass rush led by rookie Terrell Suggs' six sacks. That might help Baltimore overcome the Rams' considerable home-field advantage in a noisy dome. St. Louis sports a 10-game winning streak at home in addition to a 16-5 record against AFC teams over the last five years. "It won't be flag football, just pitch and throw," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "No, it's going to be some real football played."

No matter how intricate the routes are, or how impressive the Rams' reputation and numbers are, the defense is striking a confident stance. At least, before kickoff. "It doesn't matter who our opponent is," McAlister said. "We're going to play our game. Ultimately, the bottom line is we have talent and they have a lot of talent.  "Talent by itself is going to cancel itself out. It's going to be about who executes their game plan and has the best technique on the day."

NOTE: Besides Fuller (groin, hamstring), safety Chad Williams (back) is questionable and running back Jamal Lewis (shoulder) listed as probable on the injury report. Fuller did take part in drills.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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