OWINGS MILLS – Two seasons ago, the Baltimore Ravens’ defense was exploited for two touchdown catches by San Diego Chargers All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates.
On each sequence during a 32-14 victory over the Ravens in San Diego, Gates simply used his athleticism and route-running capabilities to burst into the secondary and separated from the Ravens’ coverage.
Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis was beaten in single-coverage on one of Gates’ touchdowns in that game.
Now, the Ravens are looking to change the results in this critical matchup on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium.
"That’s a tremendous weapon for them," Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington said. "He’s the best, if not one of the two or three best tight ends in the league. He’s dangerous. He can score from anywhere on the field. We have to be aware and account for him at all times."
The former Kent State power forward has caught 405 career passes for 5,149 yards and 51 touchdowns. During the Chargers’ opening-game win over the Oakland Raiders, Gates caught five passes for 83 yards.
Only wide receivers Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens have caught more touchdown passes since 2004 than Gates. The five-time Pro Bowl selection also holds the single-season touchdown catch record for tight ends with 13.
The timing between Gates and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is impeccable.
"I think they’re real close," Lewis said. "On the football field, you can tell their relationship that they k ind of know each other, where the routes are going to be and things like that. So, our job is to make sure we don’t let him settle in the pocket, don’t let him get into their routes without being physical."
Defending Gates is a matter of jamming him at the line of scrimmage and not allowing him to get a clean release into his pass routes.
He’s particularly dangerous in the red zone.
"He’s one of the premier tight ends in the league, so we need to focus on a guy like that," said strong safety Dawan Landry, who will draw the primary assignment of guarding Gates. "He gets into his patterns, he uses his body well and he’s a big basketball type of guy.
“You have to play him just like he’s a receiver. We have to play our keys and read Rivers to get him stopped."
INJURY UPDATE: Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (concussion, chest) returned to practice after missing Wednesday’s workout, and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison predicted that he will play against San Diego.
"In fact, he’s really 100 percent," said Mattison, indicating that Suggs’ injury isn’t a concussion. "He’s just got a little soreness in his stomach, in his rib area. He’s fine.”
Safety Tom Zbikowski didn’t practice for the second consecutive day due to a concussion while free safety Ed Reed was limited for the second day in a row with a concussion.
Mattison predicted that Zbikowski will play.
Reed’s outlook is encouraging, too.
“Reed is fine," Mattison said. "Somebody might have said that he wasn’t supposed to go. The next thing, I looked out there and he was intercepting passes, running all over."
Tight end L.J . Smith (pulled left hamstring) was limited for the second day this week.
Meanwhile, inside linebacker Tavares Gooden declared that he’s definitely going to play against the Chargers after suffering a minor knee sprain against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Gooden participated fully in practice for the second day in a row.
"I wasn’t limping, that was my pimp walk," Gooden said. "Yes, I’m going to play. I don’t know if you’re ever 100 percent in football, but I’ll have my speed. I ran around and finished practice. I’m just being smart about it and getting ready."
As for the Chargers, running back LaDainian Tomlinson (sprained ankle), center Nick Hardwick (ankle), offensive guard Luis Vasquez (knee) and defensive end Travis Johnson (groin) didn’t practice for the second time this week.
Tomlinson’s right foot is in a protective walking boot.
Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who coached Tomlinson in San Diego, predicted that the former NFL Offensive Player of the Year will do everything possible to play.
"Absolutely," he said. "I’m not a mind reader, and obviously I’m not there, but I know, everybody knows, the player he is."
Hardwick isn’t expected to play.
Nose guard Jamal Williams (arm) and punter Mike Scifres (groin) were limited. Offensive tackle Marcus McNeill (hand) participated fully.
NO BASKETT: Free agent wide receiver Hank Baskett signed with the Indianapolis Colts after the Ravens held discussions with the former Philadelphia Eagles reserve.
The Ravens had interest in Baskett, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder who went unclaimed when he was placed on waivers due to the expense of his $1.545 million restricted free agent tender.
Baskett has caught 72 career passes for 1,052 yards, including 33 receptions for 440 yards and three touchdowns last season in Philadelphia.
The Ravens were one of several NFL teams that made inquiries about Baskett, 27, regarding a potential trade before the Eagles cut him this week, but ultimately decided to pass on him.
The Colts desperately needed a receiver with Anthony Gonzalez sidelined for up to two months with a sprained medial collateral ligament. The Colts tried out Chad Jackson, David Patten and D.J. Hackett before signing Baskett.
HOMECOMING: Ravens reserve defensive tackle Brandon McKinney played for the Chargers in 2006 and 2007 before being cut prior to last season.
Now, he returns to San Diego after signing a three-year contract extension with Baltimore during the offseason.
McKinney said he won’t get caught up in the emotions of wanting to prove that the Chargers mad e a mistake by discarding him.
"It’s always exciting to play against your old team," McKinney said. "My main thing is to do what I do and play hard and not put too much emphasis on that.
"I think if you do that then you’re making a mistake, because you’re not concentrating on the right things. It’s part of the business."
WAITING HIS TURN: Rookie outside linebacker-defensive end Paul Kruger started three of four preseason games, but was deactivated for the season opener.
Why didn’t he get to play?
Kruger doesn’t play special teams, and that’s why outside linebacker Antwan Barnes got the nod. Barnes recorded three tackles on special teams.
“I am trying as hard as I can to go earn a role so I can contribute more,” Kruger said. “I definitely need to be a bigger part of special teams and work my way up, or if there’s an opportunity on defense.”
Kruger said that he never played special teams at the University of Utah, but has been practicing on a few special teams units.
“I’m hoping to find a role here,” he said.
Mattison said that Kruger has maintained a good attitude.
“He’s a professional,” he said. “This is his job. Paul’s working hard. He’s going to be a really, really good football player here. Right now, it’s just a numbers game.
"I think the special teams’ need of other players has kind of bumped him, but Paul’s going to be a really good player here and you’ll see him really come on.”
GETTING IT RIGHT: Special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said the buck stops with him as far as the Ravens allowing a blocked punt for a touchdown against the Chiefs.
“The situation that came up in the punt situation was clearly my fault,” he said. “I take full responsibility for it. It was a communication problem that I should have handled long before this, and the first thing we did Monday was address it. We got back out there and we got it fixed.”
When asked how it could be his fault, Rosburg replied: “Because I’m responsible to coach those guys and make sure that they understand exactly what’s going to happen to them and when it does happen, how to react. And it didn’t happen, and it’s my responsibility.”
On the play, Jon McGraw shot through a gap between the right guard and right tackle.
Punter Sam Koch reiterated that the Ravens have fixed their mistakes.
“It was an overload, it wasn’t anything we haven’t seen before,” he said. “It’s a miscommunication and it’s been cleared up. Everybody wants to move on and we’re going to focus on this week.”
QUICK HITS: The Ravens intend to swarm Chargers return specialist Darren Sproles to keep him contained. “He is very explosive,” Rosburg said. “It takes the whole team, because this is a guy that not only can he attack the whole field, but even at the point of attack he can make people miss and break tackles. So, it’s going to be one of those games where you really have to focus on gang coverage.” … Rosburg said that the officials made the correct call on the block-in-the-back penalties assessed to Baltimore last week. “It was a tight call, but it was probably the right call given where it had happened,” he said. “Where those two happened, that’s quite common to get those fouls.” … Mattison thoroughly enjoyed calling his first regular-season game as an NFL defensive coordinator. Especially considering the personnel he has to work with. “It felt great,” he said. “It feels really, really good when you look out there and you see the players you have. I’ve been there the other way where you’re calling defenses and you’re looking out there going, ‘Oh my God, I don’t think we have a chance of stopping anybody.’ Every day is exciting here because of who you’re with, and that’s what makes it a special place.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.