Ravens prepping for Boldin, Fitzgerald

OWINGS MILLS -- As if a nearly disastrous fourth-quarter collapse defined by dropped touchdown catches and shoddy tackling wasn't enough to awaken the Baltimore Ravens' secondary, the impending arrival of an imposing receiver tandem has gained their full attention.

In the case of Arizona Cardinals wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, there's virtually no way to avoid devoting a major of the defensive game plan toward containing their impact.

It's hard to ignore their production, their combined three Pro Bowl appearances or Boldin's 6-foot-1, 217-pound, sculpted build as the Ravens (1-1) prepare to play Arizona (1-1) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

"I remember Boldin," Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said, recalling how Boldin caught six passes for 95 yards against Baltimore as a rookie four years ago. "We were wondering, 'Who is this big, stocky guy with the big guns?' He's a competitor.

"He's not afraid to go across the middle. I have a lot of respect for those two. Fitzgerald is more of a vertical threat. In our room, we compare Boldin to a jacked-up, HGH version of Hines Ward."

Boldin doesn't have any known associations with steroids or human-growth hormone, and Scott was joking. However, Boldin does qualify as a big, tough receiver, as does Fitzgerald at 6-3 and 226 pounds.

Boldin enters this game with eight receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown, and Fitzgerald, a former Minnesota Vikings ball boy who grew up learning the game from Cris Carter, Jake Reed and Randy Moss, has 10 catches for 107 yards.

Fitzgerald carries a reputation for having two of the soundest hands in the league. Both surpassed the 1,400-yard mark in 2005, only the third time teammates have done so as Fitzgerald made the Pro Bowl at age 22.

"Those two guys are two of the bigger receivers that we'll face this year in a tandem," Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. "Strong, physical guys and both are Pro Bowlers.

"They have a lot of attributes besides being able to get open and get off the press. They're great blockers downfield. They're a complete package."

Boldin caught 83 passes for 1,203 yards and four touchdowns last season, and has already tallied 350 career receptions for 4,710 yards and 21 touchdowns two games into his fifth NFL season. Boldin debuted in 2003 with 101 catches for 1,377 yards and eight touchdowns.

Fitzgerald caught 69 passes for 946 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games last season, and has 240 career catches for 3,242 yards and 24 touchdowns.

"These guys are physical, they're big and they just outmuscle you," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "So we're going to be challenged by their wide receivers and we're going to have to step up to that challenge. Our guys know that."

Part of the problem with defending the Cardinals is their balance. They feature the NFC's leading rusher in Edgerrin James, who has gained 220 yards and scored two touchdowns.

Plus, former USC quarterback Matt Leinart has the advantage of defenses not being sure who to double-team: Boldin or Fitzgerald.

"I can go to either one of those guys," Leinart said in a conference call. "Even when they're covered, I know they're going to make a play for me."

Yet, few defenses can counter with a pair of former Pro Bowl cornerbacks like McAlister and Rolle.

"Obviously, Chris and I have to look at this as a challenge," said Rolle, who trains with Boldin during the offseason. "Anquan is a great athlete, and Fitzgerald probably has the best hands in the NFL. Anquan is a bigger, faster, younger Hines Ward. Fitzgerald is like a Keyshawn Johnson. Anything that touches his hands he's going to catch."

One week ago, the secondary was torched by Jets first-time starting quarterback Kellen Clemens for 176 yards in the fourth quarter of a 20-13 win.

Baltimore had allowed only 107 total yards through three quarters.

Baltimore, which had key missed tackles from safety Ed Reed and nickel back Corey Ivy, benefited heavily from two dropped touchdowns by Justin McCareins with his final miscue deflecting to middle linebacker Ray Lewis for a game-clinching interception.

The Ravens' coverage and communication wasn't up to their usual high standard.

"It's great that it didn't cost us the game and I love the fact that they're challenged by that," Billick said. "It's just a motivation."

Clemens engineered scoring drives of 68 and 81 yards, and the Jets registered receptions of 44, 23, 50 and 24 yards as they scored 10 unanswered points to cut into a 20-3 lead after three quarters.

"I think the coaches and players were all disappointed about how we played in the fourth quarter," safety Dawan Landry said. "We had a few breakdowns and had to go back to the drawing board. We need to play until the final gun."

McAlister declined to even discuss the Jets game despite repeated questioning. Apparently, that awful fourth quarter has become a taboo topic. "I'm not talking about the Jets," he said. "This is about Arizona."

The Ravens, which had the NFL's top-ranked defense a year ago and led the league with 28 interceptions, haven't lacked a killer instinct in the past. That makes what transpired even more surprising and alarming.

"This is a prideful defense," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "We had the game going our way. Then, I think we kind of had a little bit of a letdown.

"That's where you get to tightening up instead of the other way around. Our guys were professional enough to respond the appropriate way."

The Ravens are banking that last week was an aberration. Especially with Boldin and Fitzgerald eager to expand on their weekly highlight show.

"Honestly, I think we had a little lead and slowed down a little," Rolle said. "The Jets made some adjustments and we started messing up. "Everybody made it seem like we were supposed to be sad. We still won the game. Just watch what happens Sunday."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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