Mason leading Ravens' passing game

OWINGS MILLS -- Derrick Mason was in a mood to celebrate after bursting into the end zone Sunday, punctuating his touchdown catch with an unmistakable Michael Jackson imitation replete with a triumphant finger pointed toward the air. For Mason, his "Billy Jean" moment marked a set of emotions entirely different than how he felt at the end of last season.

Back then, he was complaining loudly to anyone that would listen that his talent was being ignored in the Baltimore Ravens' offense. The veteran wide receiver doesn't harbor those concerns today, especially not considering his career resurgence over the first three games as the chosen target for quarterbacks Steve McNair and Kyle Boller. He's the NFL's fourth-ranked receiver with 23 receptions for 209 yards.

During Sunday's 26-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, Mason caught eight passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. The score represented his first since a Nov. 12 touchdown against the Tennessee Titans last year.

"Listen, my motto is: 'If you throw it to me, I'm going to catch it,'" Mason said. "Plain and simple. I've been that way for 10 years, and I don't see it stopping.

"I've been blessed to play this sport. I've been blessed to have a tremendous career. The only thing I need to do is get my hands on it."

The only players to catch more passes this season than Mason, 33, are the Cincinnati Bengals' T.J. Houshmandzadeh (29), the San Diego Chargers' Antonio Gates (27) and the Bengals' Chad Johnson (25).

A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Mason is coming off a subpar season by his standards as he dipped to 68 receptions for 750 yards and two touchdowns last year.

Mason sounded off in bitter, frustrated fashion twice following the Ravens' playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, griping about being deemphasized in the West Coast offense amidst the development of young receivers Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams.

There was loud talk about whether he would be cut or traded, but fences were ultimately mended with a series of talks during the offseason between Mason, general manager Ozzie Newsome and Ravens coach Brian Billick.

Now, Mason is on pace to catch a career-high 122 passes for 1,114 yards, but he says he wouldn't hesitate to make his case again if he ever felt like it was necessary.

The Detroit native makes no bones about it. He wants the football in his hands -- a lot.

"I don't think I will ever stop complaining,"

Mason said. "I think the day I stop complaining is the day I retire. I think it's just a receiver's nature, whether it be complaining to the media or complaining behind closed doors, you're always open.

"I think I've learned how to temper it and, if I have some problems, then I know that I can go to Brian Billick or Rick Neuheisel and discuss those issues. I don't think there's going to be an issue this year because I understand what we have on offense, the potential and the guys with the explosiveness when they catch the ball."

Mason has caught eight more passes than tight end Todd Heap, the Ravens' second-leading receiver.

Although Mason is averaging only 9.1 yards per reception, he has contributed a series of key first downs. His most recent one in the clutch was a 5-yard catch on 3rd-and-2 from Boller at the Ravens' 28-yard-line, keeping alive an eventual game-winning drive against the Cardinals.

Mason has primarily operated out of the slot, creating mismatches against heavier, slower linebackers and safeties and less-talented nickel backs.

"Didn't you see what I did to that linebacker the other day?" Mason said. "C'mon, you understand, you understand."

Mason is also benefiting from the speedy, dual presence of Williams and Clayton, who is healthy again after recovering from toe and ankle injuries. Their combination as a downfield threat has created some extra breathing room for Mason.

"I think what makes it so good for me is that I've got Clayton and Williams outside of me, and those guys do a tremendous job," Mason said. "When you have two guys like that outside of you, it makes it hard for the defense. Even if they want to try and stop you, they can't because they have to work on the other two guys as well."

Mason is known as a workaholic devoted to his training regimen and disciplined diet with a reputation for always staying after practice to perfect his timing on routes.

Billick paid Mason a major compliment Monday, comparing his work ethic favorably to retired All-Pro receiver Cris Carter, whom Billick coached when he was the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator.

"You've got to love Derrick and the way he works," Billick said. "It's a real chore to get him to back off a little bit during the week, reminding him how old he is. He works as hard as any receiver I've been around, and I've been around some guys that have worked pretty hard.

"Cris Carter, for all that Cris was, was a tremendous worker, but even Cris kind of laid down on Friday a little bit to get his legs underneath him. I've got to get Derrick to maybe do that a little bit more because he's playing as well as I've ever seen him play."

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

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