Washington hitting stride with Ravens

OWINGS MILLS -- Three months after his starting debut with the Baltimore Ravens ended in an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, cornerback Fabian Washington has rebounded strongly from a shaky beginning.

Three months after being burnt by speedy Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes for a 38-yard touchdown pass in a 23-20 defeat, Washington has validated the Ravens' investment of a fourth-round draft pick to acquire him via trade from the Oakland Raiders this spring.

He has established himself as a viable starting cornerback, stepping into the lineup with former Pro Bowl selection Chris McAlister out for the season with a knee injury. He leads the team with 14 pass deflections.

Washington deflected a career-high four passes in a 24-10 victory over the Washington Redskins, and might have more than one interception for the season if not for a pair of shaky hands.

"We got the guy we thought we were going to get," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "He's been tremendous. We were kidding him because we're telling our guys, 'Make sure you're sprinting to the ball when it's thrown to Fabian because he's going to bat it down somewhere.'

"He's dropped a few interceptions this year, but I think if he would've caught them he would probably be headed to the Pro Bowl. But he's had a tremendous year for us, and he loves playing here."

Washington has answered critics who questioned his toughness and willingness to tackle in Oakland, recording 25 tackles.

And he has gambled less than usual, which led to his breakdown against Holmes when he darted for the football and missed in the first meeting at Heinz Field.

Overall, his comfort level with the Ravens' scheme has increased markedly.

Washington has come a long way since being suspended for the season opener for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy in an offseason domestic violence incident, and missed the second game of the year with a bulging disc in his neck.

"At the time against Pittsburgh, it was my first game back and I played pretty good," Washington said. "Now, I've got my legs under me. I'm dealing with all of my injuries pretty well. I'm turning it on definitely at the right time."

The timing is appropriate because the Ravens will need Washington to have an especially sound game in man-to-man coverage against Holmes, one of the fastest receivers in the AFC North.

Holmes has caught 44 passes for 676 yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and is coming off an 82-yard receiving game against the Dallas Cowboys for his fourth-highest total of the season.

"Santonio's very fast, and he knows how to get open," Washington said. "When Ben scrambles, you always have to keep your eyes on him because he knows how to come back to the ball and just make plays."

Holmes has averaged 78 receiving yards against the Ravens in five career games and has caught five touchdown passes against them.

"He's really fast," Ryan said. "It would be a great race between him and Fabian and Samari Rolle. It would be great to line them all up maybe in the offseason somewhere. My money would be on Fabian."

Washington has 4.29 speed in the 40-yard dash, the fastest time of any incoming rookie in the 2005 NFL draft when he was picked in the first round by the Raiders out of Nebraska.

He'll need that speed against the Steelers, who are no longer prone to running the football. The new-look Steelers are heavily reliant on Roethlisberger's ability to throw downfield to Holmes, Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller.

"They like to go empty," Ryan said. "When's the last time you played Pittsburgh and they had an empty backfield?"

"They've got to try to do something," Washington said. "There's no running on us, so everybody resorts to passing the ball. On the back end, we need to stay disciplined, have great technique and make plays."

Notebook: Rice doubtful for Sunday

OWINGS MILLS -- Although Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh declared that Ray Rice will be a game-time decision Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the rookie running back isn't expected to play due to a serious contusion on his left shin.

Rice was listed as doubtful on the final injury report and didn't practice all week. He's off crutches and isn't limping as badly as he was a few days ago.

"He's definitely getting better, moving around a lot better," Harbaugh said. "We're hopeful that he can get back, so I'd say it will be game-time."

If Rice is sidelined, then newly-signed rookie running back Jalen Parmale could potentially be active after being acquired off the Miami Dolphins' practice squad Tuesday.

Parmale has undergone a rapid education in the Ravens' playbook with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery. The sixth-round pick from Toledo stayed after practice Friday to catch passes from director of pro personnel George Kokinis.

"From a crash-course perspective, yeah, there are a lot of things at the running back position that are the same across the board," Harbaugh said. "He's just got to take the terminology and apply it. I would think he's got a percentage of it that he may be ready to have Sunday. If he has to play, then we'll give him that part of it. But it wouldn't be all of it, for sure, right now."

Besides Rice, the Ravens got healthier Friday as wide receiver Derrick Mason (dislocated left shoulder) and kicker Matt Stover (sprained right ankle) practiced for the first time this week.

Mason participated in team and individual drills, and Stover kicked field goals on the side.

Mason, Stover, offensive tackle Jared Gaither (sprained right shoulder) and safety Jim Leonhard (illness) were limited in practice, but are regarded as probable for the game.

The Ravens also listed cornerback Samari Rolle (hamstring), safety Ed Reed (hamstring), return specialist Yamon Figurs (left knee bruise) and rookie offensive guard David Hale (left ankle) as probable. Figurs said he will be returning punts and kickoffs Sunday.

Wide receiver Marcus Maxwell (hip) is doubtful.

Offensive tackle Willie Anderson has a splint on the ring finger of his right hand, but wasn't listed on the injury report. He's still expected to start at right tackle ahead of Adam Terry.

The Steelers ruled out defensive end Brett Keisel (sprained medial collateral ligament, left knee) and offensive tackle Marvel Smith (back).

Pittsburgh listed strong safety Troy Polamalu (calf) and outside linebacker James Harrison (knee) as probable. Running back Carey Davis (calf) is questionable.

FINISHING STRONG: The Ravens are cognizant of the Steelers' ability to mount a fourth-quarter comeback, particularly after their 20-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys built on scoring 17 unanswered points in the final period a week ago. Plus, Pittsburgh came from behind to win 23-20 in overtime over Baltimore earlier this season to overcome a 13-3 deficit.

"We play running backs and we say, 'You have to tackle this guy to the ground,'" linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "That might be an odd statement, but it means that you have to wrap up and bring them all the way to the ground. Pittsburgh is like that as a team. "You can't just beat them in the first or second quarter. You have to beat them the entire game. Pittsburgh is a 60-minute team. You have to beat them into the ground."

The Ravens have proven to be strong finishers, though. They have outscored opponents 98-33 in the fourth quarter with just 13 points surrendered in the fourth quarter over the past nine games.

BIG HITTER: Middle linebacker Ray Lewis leads the Ravens with 134 tackles, including several emphatic hits. He has inflicted a lot of pain this season.

He nailed Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis during the Ravens' 24-10 win last week, and knocked Steelers rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall out for the season with a fractured shoulder on another brutal shot in the third game of the year.

Lewis consciously bulked up to 260 pounds in order to pack more power into his tackles, and so he would have a little extra padding to absorb some of the force from the blows he delivers.

"He's playing big," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "He's hitting people, and they're going backwards. It's funny because he looks like it's the same Ray Lewis, but, man, he really is delivering some shots this year. Big hits turn games, the momentum of games. I'm glad he's on our side."

In a recent Sports Illustrated poll, Lewis was named by NFL offensive players as the one defensive player they would rather not run into.

"I always want to be remembered as that guy that every play you've got to deal with me," Lewis said. "That's the respect you look for. You don't look for it outside. You look for it from your peers and people that you play against. So when you get that type of respect, it just goes to show you that all the hard work that you do put in, it pays off."

HIT MAN II: The Ravens are well aware of Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward's penchant for vicious downfield blocks, especially after he broke Cincinnati Bengals rookie linebacker Keith Rivers' jaw.

Plus, Ward upended an unsuspecting Reed and linebacker Bart Scott a year ago with painful results.

"A lot of times when you peel around, you have to keep your head on a swivel because you're going to get cracked," Johnson said. "A lot of teams don't have the receivers willing to block. He's willing to throw it in there."

Ward has no intentions of changing his hard-nosed approach to the game.

"I'm not going to wait around to be hit," Ward told Pittsburgh reporters. "I'm going to continue to go aggressively after guys."

Ward knows that he's owed a few revenge shots by the Ravens. It's a rare occasion when he gets the worst of a confrontation.

"My day's coming," Ward said. "Hey, I've been hit before. Ed Reed hit me a couple of times, but I'm not going to sit there and worry about guys talking about how they're gonna get me back."

QUICK HITS: The Ravens have cut down significantly on personal fouls. The last one assessed was on linebacker Antwan Barnes for taunting against the Miami Dolphins. "We remember those," Harbaugh said. "It's been a point of emphasis from the get-go, and we've been applying it. Our team understands that things that aren't helpful we just can't do. Most of those things aren't helpful. So, I'm proud of the fact that they've cleaned that stuff up, but it needs to carry over into Sunday and through the rest of the season." ... The Ravens piped in crowd noise to simulate the conditions at M&T Bank Stadium during Friday's workout at their indoor practice field. "Our concern is that our defense has to communicate, that's why we did crowd noise on the defensive side of the ball," Harbaugh said. "We want our fans being loud to disrupt their offense, but we can't let it disrupt our defense. So, we've got to handle communication with that." ... Harbaugh said he didn't have to advise his players to avoid providing the Steelers with any bulletin-board material. It has been a relatively quiet week in both cities with virtually nothing that could be considered trash-talking. "Our guys just understand what is effective and what's not, what's important and what's not and what's going to help us win and what's not," he said. "Those other things certainly aren't going to help us or help the Steelers. Obviously, both sides understand that."

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