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OWINGS MILLS — Steve McNair delivered the football more crisply than usual Thursday, uncorking a spiral that made Mark Clayton’s fingertips sting a little.
It was a case of rare velocity and accuracy for the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback whose throwing motion and productivity have been severely affected by back and groin injuries, sailing several passes during the first half of the season.
"He’s alive and well," wide receiver Mark Clayton said of the four-time Pro Bowl quarterback. "A healthy Steve is very good. It’s great to have our starting quarterback refreshed and re-energized. He threw the ball on the money."
As McNair prepares for his first start in nearly a month Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he proclaimed himself rejuvenated since missing two starts and recuperating from his injuries during the bye. Monday’s pivotal AFC North contest will mark his first game action since a 9-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 7.
"I felt good, the two or three weeks I had off were good for the body," McNair said. "It gave me time to heal up. It’s kind of tough when you have injuries to go out there and compete. Overall, I’m feeling good."
Following the Ravens’ most strenuous workout this week, teammates and the coaching staff were impressed with McNair’s progress. McNair, 34, has been limited to four starts for Baltimore (4-3) due to injuries, not finishing two of those games.
"I don’t mean to be the doctor here, but I think he’s 100 percent healthy," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Obviously, there’s freshness after the last three weeks. He’s throwing the ball extremely well."
McNair has completed 65.6 percent of his throws running a ball-control version of the West Coast offense, throwing two touchdowns with two interceptions for an 80.2 quarterback rating.
He’s banking on improved health leading to increased mobility, so the Ravens can employ more designed rollouts and waggle passes.
"I think you just go out there and make better plays," McNair said. "I think that’s going to be the key regardless of how you keep the chains moving. Whether it’s throwing the ball or it’s taking off running, now that I’m healthy I can do a lot of different things."
Still, McNair has struggled over his past six starts dating back to the Ravens’ regular-season finale last year against the Buffalo Bills and a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. In those games, he has thrown two touchdown passes and committed eight turnovers, including five interceptions.
However, McNair has an especially strong record against Pittsburgh (5-2), which owns a one-game advantage in the division heading into Monday.
The 13-year veteran is 11-4 all-time against the Steelers with 21 career touchdowns and 13 interceptions, including a 5-3 road record and a 102.8 quarterback rating in Pittsburgh.
"Steve McNair is a been-there-done-that guy, ridiculously tough, great competitor, great physical skills," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "Heâ€™s a good football player.â€
And McNair is counting on not overthrowing receivers and extending his range to include more intermediate throws after averaging just 5.87 yards per passing attempt so far this season.
Ever since injuring his groin in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals where he fumbled three times, McNair hasn’t been able to properly step into his throws. Later, he twisted his back and was held out against the St. Louis Rams and the Buffalo Bills prior to the bye.
"Mostly, I used my arm," McNair said. "Now, I can go ahead and make sure I can follow through with the right technique.
"Mainly as a quarterback, you have to have the right techniques. Now that I got them back, things will work out."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.