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Mason excited to be an inside man

The Baltimore Sun

The words, simmering during a season of falling statistics and rising frustration, tumbled out of Derrick Mason's mouth at M&T; Bank Stadium in the moments after last season's disappointing playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Having caught just two passes for 16 yards in a 15-6 defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Ravens' veteran wide receiver spoke calmly but pointedly about feeling underused and unappreciated in his second season in Baltimore.

"It's like that old guy that's been doing something for so long, and then all of a sudden, somebody introduces an iPod to him and he's been playing records, he's going to get frustrated because nobody's selling records," Mason, 33, said Monday after practice in Owings Mills.

"I think that's how it was with me. I just got used to one thing for so long, and being pushed in that situation I was in last year, I didn't know how to take it. It got the best of me and I voiced my displeasure. I could have probably done it in other ways."

Offseason meetings with Ravens coach Brian Billick and general manager Ozzie Newsome - and time - have seemed to quell Mason's unhappiness, but as the Ravens approach their 2007 opener, questions remain about how Mason will be used in the offense.

Will Mason's role change to becoming more of an inside receiver between wide receivers Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams, to help him produce significantly better numbers than last season, when 68 catches for 750 yards and two touchdowns were season lows since he became a starter for the Tennessee Titans in 2000?

Or was last season just a sign that Mason was simply wearing down after a decade in the NFL?

Mason, who has built his career around running precise routes and having great hands rather than bursting past cornerbacks and making spectacular aerial plays, is looking forward to being used in the slot, something with which he is not unfamiliar.

"It's great for me," said Mason, whose reception total last year was second on the team to tight end Todd Heap's. "I've played inside my whole career in the three-receiver package because I knew how to work the field and get open. This year they're pushing more to that. When I'm in a situation like that, in third down, I'm at my best."

Mason showed as much in Saturday's weather-shortened 13-7 preseason loss to the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover.

On the first-team offense's first touchdown drive since the preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, Mason caught three passes from quarterback Steve McNair in the 70-yard drive, including one on third down. It resulted in a 6-yard touchdown.

"Mase is the same type of receiver [as in Tennessee]," said McNair, who has played with Mason for all but one of the past 10 seasons. "He's a savvy, smart receiver who has a knack for the game. He's one of those guys who you can't explain. He's going to make plays."

It was on the touchdown catch that Mason demonstrated the kind of move that has kept him in the NFL for 11 years. After taking a pass in the flat, Mason cut to his right, stopped and then moved to his left to avoid Redskins linebacker Rocky McIntosh.

"It was just reacting to a play," said Mason, who finished with team highs of five catches for 31 yards. "My legs have been feeling really good all of camp. I've done a tremendous job in the offseason that my body can hold up and I'll be able to stop on a dime. Now I'm able to do some things that I was able to do when I first got here, even in Tennessee."

Said Ravens wide receivers coach Mike Johnson: "He's had a great camp. I like where he is mentally right now. He's doing a great job of working every day. He's kind of controlling that passion that he has and he's kind of channeling that to the football field."

Mason's outburst last season didn't surprise McNair.

"When you're a good receiver, you want the football," McNair said yesterday. "He's not being selfish. He just figures he can make every play. You've got to have that cockiness and confidence about you if you're going to make it in this league."

Mason, who caught a franchise-record 86 passes for 1,073 yards and three touchdowns his first season with the Ravens in 2005, admits that last season's diminished role helped push him harder during the offseason. He also had time to allow a hamstring injury to heal.

"It was a motivation because you hear everybody saying for some odd reason that he's losing a step, that he's not quite the receiver he was before," said Mason, who twice was named to the Pro Bowl during eight years in Tennessee, once as kick returner and once as a receiver. "Opportunity dictates what you do on the field numbers-wise."

Mason also knows that the Ravens have an eye toward the future when considering how much to use Clayton, a former first-round draft choice who is sidelined with a sprained ankle, and Williams, who showed flashes as a rookie of becoming a reliable deep threat, as well as Heap.

Not that Mason is passing the torch; not yet, anyway.

"I'm going to play hard while I'm here, I'm going to work hard and I'm going to make sure I maintain my stamina and my strength and play at a high level," he said. "I don't want to be pushed out of the game. I want to leave on my own accord."

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