Ravens to use Deion at receiver

OWINGS MILLS - In a retro approach to their wide receiver problem, the Baltimore Ravens enlisted venerable, yet versatile nickel back Deion Sanders and another athlete who has excelled against the Pittsburgh Steelers. <br><br> With starter Travis Taylor likely out for four games after aggravating a groin injury, Sanders caught passes adeptly after practice Wednesday from quarterback Kyle Boller heading into Sunday's home-opener against Pittsburgh.

The seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback is 37, but he caught 60 career passes for 784 yards and three touchdowns before retiring prior to the 2001 season. It's unlikely Sanders would play receiver against the Steelers, but the team didn't rule out the possibility after averaging 5.03 yards per attempt in a 20-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns to open the season. 

"He has a presence, and it's all about getting guys out there who can make plays," said flanker Kevin Johnson, one of four healthy receivers on the roster. "With Travis down, we're going to need another guy and his experience can help us." 

Sanders caught a 47-yard pass in the Dallas Cowboys' win over the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, becoming the first player to catch a pass and intercept one in an NFL championship. 

The future Hall of Fame selection could potentially see action at nickel back, as a punt returner and at receiver with one-time Pittsburgh nemesis Randy Hymes starting at split end in place of Taylor. 

"I want to help this team in any way possible," Sanders said. "If that means catching more punts or helping the defense, or even if I need to clear things out and let Todd Heap get under me." 

However, Ravens coach Brian Billick stressed that the team doesn't want to risk Sanders' development on defense or his health. Especially against a Steelers offense that liberally employs three-wide packages, which would increase Sanders' nickel duties. 

"Possibly, but we can't let one problem cascade into difficulties somewhere else," Billick said. "We'll definitely move toward that, but I don't want to do it at a pace that puts Deion at risk either mentally or physically based on his primary obligation, which is in our secondary." 

Sanders has 48 career interceptions and holds the NFL record for combined touchdown returns with 18. He played 15 snaps against Cleveland, returning a punt five yards. Sanders indicated he could return more punts in relief of rookie B.J. Sams this week. 

"Fear to the opposing player," Sanders said of what he adds at receiver. "Once I get the ball in my hands, I know what to do with it." 

Under Boller, the Ravens' offense got bogged down against Cleveland. The offense was stymied by poor field position, two interceptions with a long completion of 24 yards. 

Besides Sanders' addition, the Ravens' major reinforcement is Hymes. 

The former Grambling quarterback caught five passes for 39 yards against the Browns in his first regular-season game since 2002. Hymes missed all of last season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. 

Healthy again, Hymes is emerging as an alternative to Taylor, a former first-round draft pick in the final year of his contract. 

"It's a true blessing to come back out here on the field after sitting out a whole year," said Hymes, who will be backed up by rookies Devard Darling and Clarence Moore. "I think I've achieved a lot of things. I think it's a big deal for me." 

Hymes caught two passes for 76 yards in a Ravens loss at Pittsburgh to end the season two years ago. One of his catches was an acrobatic one-handed grab for 33 yards. 

"I played pretty decently, so I'm kind of thinking Pittsburgh is going to be watching film of me from that game," said Hymes, who led the Ravens in 2002 with a 20.5 average per catch on six receptions for 123 yards. "I've got a job to do. I have confidence. I can't be hesitant in what I do." 

Sanders posted career-highs in 1996 with 36 catches for 475 yards and one touchdown with the Cowboys. Now, he's the Ravens' latest attempt to boost a passing game that ranked last in the NFL last year and ranks 20th after one game. 

"To have somebody go out there and be able to play both defensive back and wide receiver, I think that's special," Hymes said. "It's been four years, so I'm not saying if he was OK or he's bad. When he was out there, he did pretty good." 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.


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