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At tight end, Ravens make 2 big catches

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When it comes to tight ends, the Ravens went from the tenements to the palace this season.

They went from Greg DeLong to Shannon Sharpe.

They went from Aaron Pierce to Ben Coates.

And now, the expectation is, they'll go from 8-8 also-ran to Super Bowl contender.

That's how important the tight end position is to coach Brian Billick's offense. That's how vital the position will be in quarterback Tony Banks' passing game. That's how much of an impact Sharpe and Coates - the two best tight ends of the past decade - figure to make in the red zone.

Who knew how critical the tight end was in today's vertical passing parade?

Well, Billick, for one. Especially after he suffered through his rookie season a year ago without an intermediate threat.

"We had no tight ends," he says now, looking back. "We had no intermediate threat in any way, shape or form. That's why our completion percentage was down. That's why our productivity wasn't very good.

"We had a decent running game and a pretty good vertical game the second half of the season. We had no intermediate game."

The Ravens ran through five tight ends last season. DeLong, a competent veteran, led the team's tight ends with 13 catches. Pierce was next with 11.

Limited to five games in 1999 because of a broken collarbone, Sharpe had 23 catches for the Denver Broncos. Even as the New England Patriots de-emphasized the tight end's role in last year's offense, Coates caught 32 passes worth 370 yards.

The five tight ends employed by the Ravens totaled 34 catches for 251 yards last year. None of them remains with the team.

That's not an upgrade, that's a revolution.

Whereas the Ravens ran the two-tight-end formation approximately 30 percent of their snaps a year ago, Billick suggests that figure may double this season.

The biggest beneficiary of the new intermediate game is Banks, who built a reputation throwing the deep ball, not the short stuff to the tight end. Nevertheless, he has an appreciation for what it will mean.

"With Shannon inside, taking advantage of some of those matchups, we've changed some of our reads, some of our progressions," Banks said. "Where the tight end wasn't even involved before, now we start [the progression] with Shannon."

Matchups most often become mismatches when Sharpe and Coates are lined up against a linebacker or a safety. Stretch the defense with speedy wide-outs, then come back underneath to the tight end. Pull the secondary up to cover the intermediate zone and then go deep.

The impact wasn't necessarily evident through the preseason, when the first-team offense operated in fits and spurts. Sharpe looked good with seven catches for 83 yards and one touchdown, while Coates caught just two for 11.

Banks appeared uncomfortable at times, but Billick says it's a process that will work itself out. At one point in the preseason, Billick conceded his emphasis on the short game had taken away from Banks' deep game.

"It's a fine line," Banks said. "You want to work in a guy like Coates and get the ball to Shannon. It's hard not to run some two-tight-end sets with those two guys.

"I think he [Billick] is doing a good job of trying to mix it up. We still want to get the ball outside. That's still one of my strengths ... even though Shannon doesn't want me to throw it outside."

Banks' jest aside, it became clear in the off-season that the Ravens' priority was to land a tight end of some notoriety. Internally, they talked about both Sharpe and Coates at the end of the season, wondering whether Sharpe would leave Denver or whether they could meet Coates' asking price.

Sharpe was willing, and after Coates had been dragged through the reality check of free agency, he was agreeable.

Sharpe signed a four-year, $13.2 million contract on Feb. 18. After a long walk through the free-agent market, Coates settled for a one-year deal worth $750,000 two days before players reported to training camp.

As happy as Billick was to get Sharpe, he was ecstatic to double his tight-end pleasure.

"It was one of those things where, all of a sudden, a piece of the puzzle dropped into place," Billick said. "We talked about Ben since the beginning of free agency. But the numbers seemed prohibitive.

"Shannon became available. We took Shannon, and you don't think of getting both because the numbers are still prohibitive. But then, prior to camp, the bottom of the stock market fell out and we bought a good bargain-basement stock."

Bargain basement, indeed.

From 1993 to 1998, Coates averaged 71 catches, 806 yards and seven touchdowns for the Patriots. In the same period, Sharpe averaged 74 catches, 950 yards and seven touchdowns for the Broncos.

Coates at 31 and Sharpe at 32 will not be expected to match the numbers they put up in their prime. Together, they have 19 years and 1,042 catches in the NFL.

Undeterred by the threat of age, Billick looks at the promise of productivity.

"Ben Coates' and Shannon Sharpe's sub-prime is most other guys' best," he said. "Can they still play? Yes. Can they still give you an intermediate presence? Yes, particularly in tandem.

"At this stage of their careers, if you had one or the other, could either individually hold up 16 games and give you the total intermediate threat that you'd like? Maybe, maybe not. But together, yes."

Ever the numbers maven, Billick breaks his projections down over a 500-pass, 300-completion season. That would boost Banks, a 53 percent passer last season, to the 60 percent range.

And that can be achieved by getting two more completions per game, Billick said.

"Can Ben Coates and Shannon Sharpe give me two more receptions a game than we had last year and make Tony Banks a 59, 60 percent completion guy? I don't think that's unrealistic."

Billick loosely projects 100 receptions from his tight ends, 70 for split end Qadry Ismail, 45 from his flanker, 35 from the slot or third receiver, and another 50 spread among the running backs.

Here's another set of numbers to consider: Last season, the Ravens completed 19 of 44 throws in the red zone. That's a paltry 43.2 percent, and 2.3 yards per attempt.

Sharpe and Coates make the red zone a danger zone for defense. In the chess game of offense-defense, they figure to affect the Ravens in a big way.

"Last year, all anybody had to do was double up on our outside and [they] knew we couldn't do a thing in the intermediate," Billick said. "But even with that, we were fairly explosive outside.

"Now, if you want to double up and take away our speed to the outside, which is Qadry Ismail, Travis Taylor, Patrick Johnson, Jermaine Lewis, you can. But that means Ben Coates and Shannon Sharpe are going to run amuck in that intermediate area. Hopefully."

The Ravens' playoff hopes bank on it.

A super combination

The addition of free-agent tight ends Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates gives the Ravens the two most prolific tight ends from the 1990s.

Receptions

Shannon Sharpe 552

Ben Coates 490

Brent Jones 367

Eric Green 362

Jackie Harris 339

Jay Novacek 339

Yards Shannon Sharpe 6,983

Ben Coates 5,471

Brent Jones 4,603

Eric Green 4,390

Jackie Harris 3,963

Touchdowns

Ben Coates 50

Shannon Sharpe 44

Wesley Walls 41

Keith Jackson 40

Eric Green 36

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