It took four years and 40 games for Kim Herring to collect the first interception of his NFL career. When the breakthrough finally arrived Sunday, the Ravens' strong safety nearly hit the jackpot.
"I thought I should have had one or two more [interceptions] in that game," Herring said. "I was mad at myself on the one Jimmy Smith caught because I thought I had it."
That would be the carom shot in the fourth quarter that Smith caught and turned into a jaw-dropping 40-yard touchdown play. It gave the Jacksonville Jaguars a 36-32 lead.
Turns out both Herring and Jacksonville receiver Keenan McCardell got a hand on the Mark Brunell pass. Herring, covering McCardell, made a strong athletic move to deflect the ball on what ordinarily would have been a game-saving play.
"I saw that ball coming and it was like slow motion," Herring said. "When [Brunell] threw it, I thought I'd have more of a chance at it. But as it got closer, I felt like I wouldn't go for it and [risk a] miss because we were on zero coverage, where we have no help."
Herring's remarkable play went for naught, but the effort did not when the Ravens rescued a 39-36 win. He had a 30-yard runback on his one interception, two tackles and two passes broken up to earn the team's defensive game ball. The interception set up a fourth-quarter field goal.
Consider it a sign of Herring's arrival as a force in the Ravens' secondary.
"He's not hesitant about his own ability anymore," said free safety Rod Woodson. "If you're hesitant, then you're an inch short, or a foot short. Now he's just flying to the ball and he's getting opportunities.
"The guy's definitely playing better this year."
A year after Herring moved to strong safety, he's found a home there.
"He's just more focused," said coach Brian Billick. "He doesn't have mental errors. He has a better conceptual understanding of the defense as to where he belongs, what he's supposed to be doing when he's there. He's just been outstanding."
The Ravens moved Herring to strong safety a year ago when they switched Woodson from cornerback to Herring's free safety spot. A second-round draft choice in 1997, Herring admits it was an uncomfortable fit at first.
"At first it was, just from the little intricacies that come with playing strong, being closer to the line," he said. "I wasn't really used to that. I was so used to being in open space a lot and being able to run."
Not only was Herring no longer playing in space, he also often found himself playing in the "box," the area at the line of scrimmage where the running game is established or defeated. It requires a physical presence to play in the box.
The 6-foot, 200-pound Herring had a career-high 65 tackles in 16 starts, but there was concern over the tackles he missed.
Starting with the off-season minicamps and continuing through training camp, Herring delivered what the Ravens wanted to see.
"From a mental and physical standpoint, I think he's upgraded both ends of it," said Steve Shafer, the Ravens' assistant head coach in charge of the secondary. "I think mechanically, he's playing much better, which is allowing him to be a better football player."
Shafer traces Herring's problems a year ago to the shoulder separation - and resulting surgery - he endured in 1998. Most of his 1999 off-season was spent rehabilitating the shoulder.
"I think the circumstances of the injury were what created him not progressing as fast as he probably would have," Shafer said. "Now he's going into his second year healthy, and it's made all the difference in the world. And I think his confidence level is at a real high point right now."
Herring plays strong safety in the Ravens' base defense, but moves to free in their nickel and dime defenses. He will move into the box to play the run as a strong safety, then slide back outside to cover a wide receiver as a free safety.
What's more impressive, Shafer says, is how he has adjusted to making the calls in the secondary.
"When you're a safety and you're making the calls and you're doing the communicating and keeping everybody on the same page, that's a guy that knows the big picture and can verbalize it," Shafer said. "That's what he's doing a very good job of.
"In my opinion, I'm seeing a different person in relationship to that this year."
Herring, 25, says he isn't satisfied.
"I think I'm playing better, but I'm still not at the point where I want to be," he said. "I create my goals so high that I feel like if I get close to those goals, it will put me in the right place at the right time."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Miami Dolphins
Site: Pro Player Stadium, Miami
When: Sunday, 8:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 2, ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Ravens by 2 1/2