Secondary acquits itself well in losing cause

PITTSBURGH – Trouble was supposed to be stalking the Baltimore Ravens' secondary. Trouble named Tommy Maddox, Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward that comprised the sixth overall passing game in the NFL. However, in a 34-31 loss to end their season the Ravens reversed a trend of allowing gobs of yardage and touchdown in the air to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Maddox was intercepted twice with cornerback Gary Baxter's first-quarter interception return for a touchdown called back due to rookie defensive end Anthony Weaver's roughing-the-passer penalty. That wouldn't be the final time that the front seven let down a secondary coached by Donnie Henderson that set a club record with 25 interceptions in a single season.

Ultimately, the credible performance of the defensive backs was squandered by the lack of a pass rush at crucial moments.

"Playing any team when a quarterback has time like that, I think you could stick any secondary on them and not even Deion Sanders, the greatest ever, could cover that long," Baxter said.

Maddox was sacked four times in completing 20 of 30 passes for 194 yards, but outside linebacker Peter Boulware was unable to get to him on his touchdown pass to Antwaan Randle El in the fourth quarter. Maddox was similarly unhurried on his two-point conversion pass to Burress for the final points.

So, Baxter holding the 6-foot-5, 226-pound Burress to three catches for 52 yards and no touchdowns largely in single coverage all went for naught.

With Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan deciding to pair veteran Chris McAlister opposite Hines Ward after several statistical nightmares for McAlister in past matchups with Burress, McAlister held Ward to five catches for 46 yards and one touchdown reception.

Ward bullied McAlister, though, on his way to the end zone in the first quarter, for his 12th touchdown reception of the season. Both McAlister and Baxter were hit with penalties during touchdown drives, too.

"We came out and didn't give them as much as they wanted," safety Ed Reed said. "They didn't beat us on a lot of vertical routes, but we still came up short. Overall, I think the secondary played really good."

Baxter was understandably frustrated with the outcome of his 25-yard return of a Maddox pass from the shotgun never officially counting because of Weaver's late hit.

"I saw Tommy Maddox look over there and I just jumped the play," Baxter said. "Luckily, I was right. When I found out we had a roughing-the-passer call … that one hurt."

Ravens coach Brian Billick was complimentary despite witnessing the Steelers set a single-season franchise mark for passing yardage with 4,036 total yards after Sunday's 176 passing yards.

Pittsburgh also set their club record for pass completions with 350 while Ward tied the Steelers single-season record for touchdown catches with on his 23-yard score to open the game's scoring. Ward and Burress finished with 1,329 and 1,325 receiving yards, respectively, for the season.

"For the most part, they kept the big plays to a minimum," Billick said. "Outstanding offense. These are all young guys that are making plays and it is only going to get better."


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