Mason on top of his game

WESTMINSTER -- Derrick Mason froze cornerback Frank Walker in his tracks with a helmet swivel combined with a hard, inside jab step. The Baltimore Ravens' veteran wide receiver had set up Walker perfectly, pressing his advantage by angling his pattern upfield and toward the sidelines to haul in a first down in stride from quarterback Kyle Boller.

The classic route left Walker flat-footed as he became yet another Mason victim.

"He got him, he got him," was the cry from the sidelines early in training camp at McDaniel College.

It was another example of how the two-time Pro Bowl selection remains a viable downfield threat despite celebrating his 34th birthday in January.

A dozen NFL seasons spent polishing his moves and a devotion to a strict diet and exercise regimen have kept Mason a step ahead of defensive backs a decade younger than him.

"What keeps things fresh for me is just coming out here every day, being out here with the guys and learning the game of football," Mason said. "There's something you can learn each and every year in this game. If you stop learning, then you might as well quit.

"I think what motivates me and what motivates a lot of these veterans out here is to learn something new out on the field and to strive to win that ultimate game, and that's the Super Bowl."

For Mason, a new season also means trying to inject a dormant offense with more explosive plays.

Last season, Mason set a franchise record with a career-high 103 receptions as the first Raven to ever eclipse the century mark for catches. Yet, he averaged just 10.6 yards per reception through an endless series of short to intermediate patterns that produced five touchdowns and 1,087 yards.

One year removed from a 13-3 campaign, the Ravens skidded into last place in the AFC North with a 5-11 record that included a franchise-record nine-game losing streak.

"You can't go off what you did last year," Mason said. "This league changes so fast. I believe we're going to prove that.

"We're not going to be the same team. I guarantee we're going to win more games."

Mason ranked fourth in the NFL in catches, but had less touchdowns and yards than the other five receivers with at least 100 receptions.

That includes T.J. Houshmandzadeh (112 catches, 1,143 yards and 12 touchdowns), Wes Welker (112 catches, 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns), Reggie Wayne (104 catches, 1,510 yards and 10 touchdowns), Brandon Marshall (102 catches, 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns) and Larry Fitzgerald (100 catches, 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns).

"Those numbers can change from year to year," Mason said. "I still have some giddy-up left in my legs, so people would be wise not to sleep on me."

One set of change s for the offense that has been evident in practice is an increased urgency to get to the line for the next play. Play clocks are stationed behind the end zone to simulate game conditions.

Plus, new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been installing longer patterns than the short variety employed by former coach Brian Billick.

"Faster tempo," Mason said. "Other than that, it's about learning new plays. What makes this one so special is we have a whole new coaching staff, a whole new outlook on what we're doing as an offense. Trying to learn Cam's terminology, I think that's a big step."

Another adjustment for Mason is trying to improve his timing with the quarterbacks while the Ravens settle on a starter between Troy Smith, Kyle Boller and rookie Joe Flacco following four-time Pro Bowl selection Steve McNair's abrupt retirement during the offseason.

The Ravens have yet to declare a new starter, but Smith will start Saturday night against the Minnesota Vikings after Boller started a 16-15 win over the New England Patriots last week.

"I don't know who the frontrunner is right now, but I do know that on any given day one guy can look good and you can say that he's the starter and the next day another guy can look good and you say he's the starter," Mason said. "Their main purpose is to drop back and deliver the ball where it's supposed to be, and they've been doing that. The more I'm out there with them, that chemistry will get a lot better."

Two seasons ago, Mason dipped to 68 receptions for 750 yards and two touchdowns. He was vehement in his complaints about not being heavily involved in the offense.

Now that he's a focal point again in the offense, a smile has returned to Mason's face. However, the Detroit native hasn't lost a bit of his hunger for the football.

"I've been at this 12 years, and I'm not going to shy away from saying that I want the ball," Mason said. "If you're a guy who can make plays, why wouldn't you want the ball?

"That's what they're paying you money for is to go out there and want the ball and make plays. It's not just me. We have a bunch of guys out there that deserve the ball and want the ball."

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


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