Mason-Clayton tandem starting to produce

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Wrapping one gloved hand around an unsuspecting cornerback's helmet to palm an acrobatic sideline catch, Derrick Mason did more than bail out Baltimore Ravens quarterback Steve McNair on his overthrown spiral. It was an impromptu clinic for Mason's protégé, Mark Clayton, to witness firsthand how to play the wide receiver position.

By the end of the Ravens' 15-14 win over the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens began to see the productive receiving tandem they had envisioned between Mason, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and Clayton, last year's first-round draft pick. Not only did Mason grab a season-high seven receptions for 132 yards, but Clayton caught a career-high eight passes.
Besides the budding chemistry with the duo, Clayton's burgeoning confidence enabled him to catch three critical passes on the Ravens' game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.
"Derrick will come back and tell me what he had on that side and how to defeat it," Clayton said. "Obviously, I'll have that in my brain. Derrick's been on the field for years. So to hear it from him, it has more weight.
"It was a step we took, a positive one for us to make plays when we needed to make them. I obviously have confidence in making plays."
Registering four receptions in the fourth quarter to finish with 74 yards, Clayton's top effort was a 16-yard crossing pattern on 3rd-and-9 in heavy traffic to set up an earlier field goal.
"I'm very proud, it shows how far he has come, what he expects of himself, what we expect from Mark," said Mason, who notched 36- and 37-yard receptions. "If you put the ball in his hands quick enough, he can make plays. The guy never stops."
The Ravens have made a conscious decision to involve Clayton more heavily after ignoring him for the most part in the first two games in favor of Mason and tight end Todd Heap. Clayton had only three receptions for 48 yards entering Sunday, and nearly tripled that production in Cleveland.
"When you get the ball into Mark's hands, you know he's going to make something happen," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We had made the point last week after the Oakland game that we needed to get the ball in Mark's hands a little more.
"Obviously, Derrick and Todd have had a couple of good games and Mark was kind of back here a little bit. When you move that target around a little bit, it makes it harder for defenses."
At 5-foot-10, 192 pounds, Mason and Clayton [5-10, 195] are similar in dimensions and style. Both are known more for their quickness and ability to run after the catch than their pure speed.
The major contrast is the experience offered by Mason, 32, in his 10th season following 555 career catches for 7,415 yards and 40 touchdowns. He leads the team with 16 catches for 228 yards.
There also seems to be a sincere willingness from Mason to impart his wisdom to Clayton, who has played in 17 NFL games and is eight years younger.
"As coaches, we can try to cover a lot of things, but Derrick with the right, well-chosen word at just the right time can relay something to Mark that would take us a month of Sundays to communicate the same thing in terms of the technique of a route or an adjustment," Billick said.
Between Mason and Clayton, they have combined for 27 catches and 350 yards after three victories. This past game, though, was the first time they have produced at high level in the same outing.
Watching Mason leap over cornerbacks inspired Clayton, who responded with a series of catches in dangerous territory.
"When Mason makes an exciting catch, everybody says, 'It's my turn to make a play,'" Clayton said. "It brings up the whole camaraderie. It's all good."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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