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OWINGS MILLS — Virtually every time prolific Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning drops back to pass, he casts a first glance toward All-Pro wide receiver Marvin Harrison.
In the case of the Coltsâ€™ explosive passing game, Manning isnâ€™t limited if his primary option is heavily guarded. His secondary option is an inviting one as he can always try to toss the football into the capable hands of Pro Bowl wide receiver Reggie Wayne.
With Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister matched opposite Harrison, oft-targeted cornerback Samari Rolle will draw the assignment of checking Wayne during Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium.
A former Pro Bowl selection once regarded as one of the top cover guys in the league, Rolle has been beaten for several touchdowns this season. However, he has intercepted three passes and raised his level of play in the second half of the season.
Now, Rolle faces the challenge of trying to contain Wayne.
â€œEvery year he has been in the NFL he has gotten better,â€ Rolle said. â€œA lot of guys stay the same, donâ€™t work at improving. You can tell heâ€™s worked to become a complete player.â€
That improvement is evidenced by Wayneâ€™s increased production with a career-high 86 receptions, 1,310 yards and nine touchdowns, a progression acknowledged by NFL peers, fans and coaches with his first Pro Bowl recognition.
â€œLast year, we voted for him for the Pro Bowl and we were surprised he didnâ€™t make it,â€ Rolle said. â€œWe voted for him again this year, and he made it. Iâ€™m happy for him. Heâ€™s a great guy and a great competitor.â€
The Coltsâ€™ 34-31 victory over the Denver Broncos offers an interesting case study in what can happen when Harrison is locked down.
With Harrison limited to five catches for 38 yards while paired opposite All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey, Wayne caught fire. He exploited the late Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams for 10 catches, 138 yards and three touchdowns.
Wayne, whose brother died in a car accident earlier this season, has begun to emerge as just as dangerous a downfield threat as Harrison. Wayne caught a touchdown during the Colts’ 23-8 wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs last week.
â€œItâ€™s been a good year, kind of bittersweet with the passing of my brother, then making the Pro Bowl for the first time,â€ Wayne told Indianapolis reporters. â€œThe Pro Bowl is sweet, but it would be even sweeter if I could go to Miami and then leave from Miami and go straight to the Pro Bowl.
â€œYou want to get to the Super Bowl together as a team because you put in all the hard work together and thatâ€™s what the overall goal. In all, it has been good, but unfinished.â€
Wayne, a close friend of Ravens All-Pro safety Ed Reed from their days together at the University of Miami, is likely to run into Reed if Manning tries to go after Rolle on a regular basis.
â€œWhat you want to do is take what defenses give you,â€ said Wayne, who has caught 390 career passes in six seasons for 5,474 yards and 37 touchdowns. â€œYou donâ€™t want to be too greedy and try to throw deep where there are two guys back there waiting like itâ€™s a punt. You donâ€™t want to turn the ball over in the playoffs. Your room for error is real low.â€
Rolle is extremely familiar with covering Wayne from his time with the Tennessee Titans, one of the Coltsâ€™ chief rivals in the AFC South. In six seasons, Wayne has caught 390 passes for 5,474 yards and 37 touchdowns and it appears that he’s only getting better.
When asked if heâ€™s looking forward to this matchup, Rolle replied: â€œYou have to. If you donâ€™t, you might as well not even be out there.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland