McNair spreading the ball around

OWINGS MILLS -- Steve McNair stares downfield, his eyes darting around from his vantage point of the secondary to take him from his primary option through each of his progressions.

With wide receiver Derrick Mason shadowed heavily by defensive backs, McNair checks down and locates Mark Clayton for a first down on a sharp crossing pattern.

The Baltimore Ravens' three-time Pro Bowl quarterback could just as easily have decided to connect with tight end Todd Heap on a short out pattern, went deep to emerging rookie wideout Demetrius Williams or even dumped the football off to a capable safety valve like fullback Ovie Mughelli.

"It doesn't allow defenses to key on one guy," Clayton said of the NFL's 11th-ranked passing game. "What's good for us is being versatile, to be able to run the ball and throw the ball, and when we throw the ball, to have options."

Because McNair has so many downfield targers to choose from along with the accuracy and experience to find the open receiver, the Ravens (12-3) have climbed to 17th offensively heading into Sunday's regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills at M&T Bank Stadium.

Along with the St. Louis Rams, Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions, Baltimore is one of four NFL teams sporting three players with 60 or more receptions, including Heap (68), Clayton (65) and Mason (63) as they have combined for 196 catches, 13 touchdowns and 2,338 yards.

"That is the expertise and presence that Steve gives you," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "The way he's spreading it around shows a grasp of what we're doing offensively, of his situation, of the abilities of the players around him."

McNair's vision has extended beyond the norm to feature multiple targets, including eight different receivers in the Ravens' 31-7 victory last weekend over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He delivered three touchdown passes, finding Clayton in stride from 35 yards along with Williams from 25 yards and connected with tight end Daniel Wilcox on a 1-yard touchdown off a play-action fake to Jamal Lewis.

Consequently, it's becoming increasingly difficult for defenses to concentrate on any one particular player and the playbook is flowing the way it's drawn up.

"It's great, everybody steps up," McNair said. "Over the past four or five weeks, the ball has been distributed a lot from the tight ends to the receivers to the backs.

"That's a sign of a good offense and the good chemistry that we have. We can distribute the ball in so many different ways and they can't pinpoint where we're going to throw the ball."

That point has been illustrated particularly well over the past seven games as McNair has located eight different receivers in six of those contests.

Over the past two weeks, Williams, a fourth-round draft pick from Oregon who's regarded as the steal of the Ravens' draft has caught touchdown passes of 25 and 77 yards, totaling four catches for 145 yards. Williams' vertical speed has become an increasingly big factor.

"Everybody's viable in our offense, and Steve does a great job of finding whoever the open receiver is," Williams said. "It just takes time to get comfortable with each other, and Steve is just getting comfortable with his receivers. I feel like Steve is doing a great job of getting the ball to whomever's open."

That democratic approach hasn't typically led to big numbers for Mason, an ultra-competitive two-time Pro Bowl selection who played eight seasons with McNair with the Tennessee Titans prior to McNair being acquired by Baltimore in a June trade.

Mason expressed frustration this week after catching just two passes for 10 yards against the Steelers. His last touchdown catch, his second of the season after catching 29 from McNair for the most the three-time Pro Bowl passer has thrown to any receiver in his career, came in a 13-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

"Anyone that's been in the league for a long time would want to be more involved in the offense," Mason said. "Hopefully, one day you will be appreciated whether that's with the current team you're at or someplace else." Minor gripes aside, the share-the-wealth approach has been working as Baltimore has won eight of its past nine games.

Heap and Clayton have caught six and five touchdowns, respectively, while fullback Ovie Mughelli has secured a career-high 16 receptions for 1333 yards with two touchdown catches.

"That shows the diversity in your passing attack, not to mention guys like Demetrius Williams," Billick stated. "Now you throw him into it, and Ovie Mughelli, whom we are able to find in some unique ways.

"Obviously, he had a relationship with Derrick Mason. He developed one with Todd Heap. He's expanded his relationship with Mark Clayton. Now, he's expanding that relationship with Demetrius Williams, and that's just going to grow and grow."

Along with the expansion of the passing game, running back Jamal Lewis has rushed for 1,063 yards and nine touchdowns. He has scored seven touchdowns in the past six games. Although Lewis no longer resembles his 2003 NFL Offensive Player of the Year form, he's still enough of a threat to make defenses respect the play-action pass that has become a staple of the offense since Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel when the Ravens were 4-2 and ranked 28th in total offense.

"I think it takes a lot of pressure off of all of us," Heap said. "It takes pressure off Jamal in the backfield, knowing that when we complete balls down the field, he's going to see fewer guys in the box.

"Steve had done a good job of really going through his progressions and really not keying on one guy and not predetermining where he's going with the ball. He's done a good job of going through his reads and saying, ‘OK, we'll take what the defense gives us. Let's hit the open guy.'"

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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