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OWINGS MILLS — The stage is set for Quinn Sypniewski, the last man standing among the Baltimore Ravens’ trio of tight ends.
Sypniewski will likely be starting Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers because Pro Bowl selection Todd Heap and backup Daniel Wilcox are questionable with hamstring and toe injuries, respectively. Neither have practiced for the past three days, and Ravens coach Brian Billick described their status as game-time decisions.
Following a career-high six catches and his first NFL touchdown in a 27-13 loss to the Cleveland Browns, Sypniewski is primed for more responsibility this weekend.
"You always have to have the mindset that anything can happen, and I’m definitely ready to go," said Sypniewski, a 6-foot-6, 270-pounder from the University of Colorado who’s primarily known for his blocking. "The key is being ready and having confidence in yourself. I had a couple mistakes last week, but, for the most part, I did pretty well."
Sypniewski bobbled a few passes in Cleveland, but has caught all eight passes thrown his way this season.
Although Heap is considered to be a bigger question mark than Wilcox, it’s unclear how he’s doing. Heap wasn’t available for comment Friday, reporting to the training room immediately after practice. Wilcox has vowed to play, and both players are listed as questionable on the injury report.
"One tight end, that’s limited," Billick said. "We’ve got to account for it. Little banged-up at receiver as well. That stretches your depth at each position. You have to factor it in. There’s no question it affects you."
Sypniewski eclipsed his previous career receptions total with his performance against the Browns. Regarded as the top blocking tight end in the draft two years ago when he was tabbed by Baltimore in the fifth round, Sypniewski’s healthy presence is invaluable Sunday.
"You find it all the time, a guy gets thrown into a situation where he has to step up and go beyond some of the things he’s been asked to do before, and he performed brilliantly," Billick said. "So, he’s been a godsend for us in that regard."
The Ravens can’t afford to lose Sypniewski or they would have no healthy tight ends on the active roster. They do have tight end Lee Vickers on the practice squad. To activate him, Baltimore would have to cut a player.
"Everybody knows I’m going to be in there, but I don’t know if I’m starting," Sypniewski said. "I’m not sure about those guys, but, if I get the chance, I’ll be ready."
FUMBLER? The Ravens have a lot of respect for 49ers Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore, the former University of Miami star who rushed for a career-high 1,695 yards last season to lead the NFC. No NFL running back had more runs of 20 yards or higher than Gore with 16.
Still, Gore, who broke his hand during the preseason, has a tendency to fumble. He has already fumbled twice this year, losing one, and has 10 career fumbles, losing eight.
"Hopefully, we can find out," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "I think he accounted for almost 50 percent of their total offense last year. The thing is, if you’re just worried about trying to get the ball out of his hand, then he’ll run you over.
"I think the big thing is getting a lot of hats on him, and obviously, if you get an opportunity to put your helmet on a football, or you get a chance to rip the ball out, then you’re definitely going to go for it."
INJURY UPDATE: Wide receiver Derrick Mason (knee) didn’t practice for the second consecutive day, but anticipates starting.
"I know I’m going to be able to play," he said. "I just wanted to rest it a little bit. I’m feeling pretty good. It’s one of those things where it just kind of irritates you. Why push it when you can rest it?"
Listed as questionable besides Mason, Heap, and Wilcox: offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (turf toe, limited in practice) and return specialist Yamon Figurs (shoulder stinger, limited).
Quarterback Steve McNair (groin pull) was upgraded to full participation in practice and is probable along with linebacker Terrell Suggs (pink eye).
STILL WAITING: Reserve cornerback David Pittman hasn’t gotten off the bench on defense despite starter Samari Rolle being sidelined with an undisclosed illness. Pittman has been behind Ronnie Prude and Derrick Martin on the nickel depth chart. Although active for three of four games, Pittman has been limited to special-teams duty.
"I just have to wait my turn," Pittman said. "I’m waiting for my opportunity, and I want to make it count when I get on the field."
Ryan was noncommittal when asked if more playing time for the former third-round pick was on the horizon.
"We’ll see, I think everybody who’s up is going to play," Ryan said. "It depends on how many receivers they want to put in the game, but he could get in there."
SACKLESS: Suggs hasn’t recorded a sack since a Dec. 31 game last year against the Buffalo Bills, a four-game streak that’s uncommon for the two-time Pro Bowl pass rusher.
The Ravens’ last sack was six quarters ago, a span of 47 passes. However, the 49ers have allowed 15 sacks, tied for the fourth-most in the league.
"The quarterbacks are doing a good job of getting the ball out fast against us," Suggs said. "I don’t think they are double-teaming me more than usual."
FAMILIAR: Ravens running back Willis McGahee was Gore’s prep rival at Miami Central High School while Gore played for Coral Gables. They were later teammates with the Hurricanes.
"It’s always good to see another UM back doing well in the NFL," McGahee said. "He still got 100 yards on us in high school, but they lost to us in the playoffs. That’s all that counts."
QUICK HITS: Wide receiver Demetrius Williams, who hasn’t returned punts since his freshman year at Oregon, caught a few punts this week in case Figurs’ shoulder is an issue. … After reviewing the film, the coaching staff credited defensive end Dwan Edwards with three tackles against the Browns. He was assigned one by the statisticians. … The 49ers have ruled out former University of Maryland tight end Vernon Davis (knee), left offensive tackle Jonas Jennings (personal reasons) and quarterback Alex Smith (separated shoulder). Wide receiver Jason Hill (hamstring) is doubtful, tight end Billy Bajema (ankle) is questionable and cornerback Tarrell Brown (hamstring) is probable. … Backup quarterback Kyle Boller, who played collegiately at Cal-Berkeley, will have between 20 to 25 friends and family at the game. "A lot of people want San Diego tickets," he said. "There will be a lot of people I know at both games."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.