It may be the biggest game within the game.
It's the Ravens No. 1 passing game against the Washington Redskins' No. 1 pass defense. It's Ravens receivers Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander against Redskins cornerbacks Cris Dishman and Darrell Green.
And then there are the X-factors -- Ravens slot receiver Jermaine Lewis and hulking tight end Eric Green. How will the Redskins cover them, and with whom, in Sunday's game at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium?
So far, Dishman and Green have limited big plays from the Jacksonville Jaguars' Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith and the Dallas Cowboys' Michael Irvin and Anthony Miller. But Jackson expects the Ravens to meet the challenge.
Jackson always does, and usually with great results.
"We're not McCardell and Smith, we're not Miller and Irvin. We've got our hands full, but they are going to have their hands full this week, too," Jackson said. "They've shut down two pretty good groups, but we're the closers, like Jose Mesa coming in the ninth for relief.
"They are by far the best cornerbacks we'll face, but I believe we have the best group of three receivers in the league. Any way they match up with us, it really doesn't matter because they don't have the numbers. They got two, we got three, and two can't cover three. It's all about numbers."
Dishman knows all about Jackson and Alexander after competing against both for years in the AFC Central when the tandem was with the Cleveland Browns and Dishman was a Houston Oiler. For years, Dishman and Jackson talked trash to each other on the field, even after the season finale last year, when Jackson burned the Oilers for three touchdowns, two against Dishman.
But Houston won the game, 24-21, and afterward Dishman said the Oilers had confused Ravens quarterback Vinny Testaverde with a number of defensive looks. But since Dishman joined the Redskins in the off-season, he has toned down his act.
He wasn't about to get involved in verbal sparring with Jackson.
"I'm sure he has caught a lot more than two touchdowns on me," said Dishman, a 10-year veteran. "He is a big-time receiver. Both he and Derrick Alexander present a lot of problems. Jermaine Lewis is also very tough. He is an outstanding receiver. They have three of the best in the league."
Of Testaverde, Dishman said: "He has been playing very well the last two years. He has been playing with a lot of confidence and he is playing better now that he has a coaching staff that believes in him."
The Redskins' style off the corners is one that has given the Ravens problems this season. The word around the league is that you can wear down their receivers by being physical, playing them tight at the line of scrimmage.
In Houston, Dishman was known as one of the most physical cornerbacks in the league, and Green, even at the age of 37, still has great mechanics and is one of the NFL's fastest players. Both can play the bump-and-run, and their tight coverage allows an otherwise suspect defense to make plays.
Dishman is fifth on the team in tackles with 55, and Green is seventh with 38.
"I've always thought Dishman was an excellent player," said Richard Mann, the Ravens' receivers coach, who held a similar position in Cleveland, where he coached against Dishman. "He is so competitive and focused, a sneaky player who will let you make the catch and then steal it from you. He used to have some great battles with Webster Slaughter in Cleveland.
"Green is all business. He is a likable guy, a Christian. You can tell that he has lived a good life by the way he still plays, the way he runs. You know he took care of his body."
Redskins coach Norv Turner would not give any indication of the matchups, but the 5-foot-8 Green might be a physical mismatch with the 6-4 Jackson. Then again, Jackson has become a better deep threat in the past two years, stretching defenses.
Alexander seems to run better routes, has better hands and is more of a threat to score after a reception. Jackson is sixth in the AFC in receptions with 36 for 512 yards, and Alexander has 34 for 440 yards.
"I don't know who is going to match up with who, but whatever happens, happens," Green said. "Both of those guys are big, strong, fast and capable."
Jackson said: "Every time I've played against Dish, there was one thing less I could do because he had picked something up. They like to press you, but it's a deceptive press. It really doesn't matter who has me or DA [Alexander], because I always think I have an advantage because I know where I'm going and they have to assume where I'm going. So far, though, they've made some pretty good assumptions this year.
"But if they play man, zone or whatever, we'll give them a lot to think about."
That's because the Ravens don't know who'll match up with Lewis or Eric Green. Right now, it looks like third-year player and nickel back Darryl Pounds will cover Lewis, who has been a pleasant surprise in his second year out of the University of Maryland.
His speed out of the slot has been a problem for opposing teams, with Lewis catching 24 passes for 400 yards. If the Redskins double-cover any of the three receivers, that leaves the 6-5 Green (31 catches, 306 yards) in single coverage.
The Ravens like that matchup.
"We'll be having our biggest challenge," Testaverde said. "Those guys change up a lot and have a lot of schemes. We'll just have to wait and see how they handle certain situations."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Washington Redskins
Site: Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, Landover
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Redskins by 6
No passing zone
The Redskins, ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the pass, have not allowed a receiver more than 81 yards in a game this season, and have surrendered just two passing touchdowns. A look at opponents' performances:
Opp., Player, Rec.-Yds.
Caro., Walls, 2-40, TD
...... Greene, 3-22
Pitt., C. Johnson, 3-33
...... Jones, 1-14
Ariz., Centers, 6-42
...... Sanders, 4-32
Jack., Smith, 4-52
...... McCardell, 4-37
Phil., Fryar, 3-72
...... Solomon, 4-45
Dall., Irvin, 5-81, TD
...... St. Williams, 3-34
Tenn., W. Davis, 5-72
...... Wycheck, 4-54
Pub Date: 10/24/97