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Figurs is quick study as returner

The Baltimore Sun

So this is why the Ravens drafted Yamon Figurs.

When the franchise spent a third-round pick on the wide receiver-return specialist from Kansas State, the prevailing thought was that Figurs would spend the year learning from incumbent return man B.J. Sams and possibly put his training to use as early as next season.

But Sams tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, and Figurs was thrust into the return role.

The move paid dividends in only the second game Figurs started as the return specialist, when he returned a second-quarter punt 75 yards to the end zone yesterday, contributing to the Ravens' 26-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at M&T; Bank Stadium.

On just the fifth punt return of his professional career, Figurs caught the ball at the Ravens' 25-yard line and began running to his left. He cut back toward the middle, splitting a few Cardinals players, and raced down the left sideline. Figurs slipped or broke four tackles along the way.

"We cut it back up the middle, and it was wide-open," Figurs said of his touchdown, which gave the Ravens a 20-3 advantage with 55 seconds left before halftime. "It was a bunch of great blocking. It's my job to make one guy miss and take it to the house, and that's what I did."

The return was the seventh longest in franchise history and 12th all time. The touchdowns by Figurs yesterday and free safety Ed Reed against the Bengals in the opener mark the fifth time the Ravens have returned two punts for touchdowns in a single season. And Figurs became the third rookie (joining Sams and Lamont Brightful) in Ravens history to return a punt for a touchdown.

"The guys told me you've just got to keep ready because anything happens," Figurs said. "It's part of pro football. People get hurt, people go down, and you've just got to step up."

Spreading the wealth

While seven different Ravens caught passes yesterday, veteran Derrick Mason continues to be the favorite target of quarterbacks Steve McNair and Kyle Boller.

Mason caught eight balls for 79 yards and a touchdown from McNair, Mason's first scoring catch since Nov. 12, giving him a team-high 23 receptions for 209 yards this season.

"Look, my motto is, 'Throw it to me, I'm going to catch it,' plain and simple," said Mason, 33. "I've been that way for 10 years, and I don't see it stopping. I've been blessed to play this sport. I've been blessed to have a tremendous career. The only things I need to do is get my hands on it."

It certainly didn't hurt Mason that Mark Clayton had his first productive game of the season after struggling with injuries since the preseason.

"What makes it so good for me is that I've got Clayton and [Demetrius] Williams outside of me, and if they want to come down on me, those guys are going to make some big catches," Mason said. "When you have two guys like that and [tight end] Todd Heap outside of you, it makes it hard on the defense, even if they want to try to stop you, they can't."

Clayton, who missed most of the preseason with an ankle injury and then suffered a turf toe injury in a season-opening loss in Cincinnati, caught five passes for 34 yards and Williams had three for 52. Heap caught four balls for 60 yards.

"It felt good to be out there with your teammates and contribute," said Clayton, whose only previous catch this season went for minus 1-yard against the New York Jets last week. "I had a route on a third down [of the opening series] - it was pretty much a curl route - that puts pressure on the toe and ankle, and I came out and made the play and it felt good."

Strange penalties

Two of the NFL's rule changes resulted in penalties against the Ravens yesterday.

One occurred when Devard Darling jumped into the stands to celebrate with Figurs after Figurs' touchdown. The Ravens were issued a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration on the ensuing kickoff.

Darling said he was unaware of the rule change that prohibits more than one player from jumping into the stands to celebrate with fans.

"I was just so excited to see Yamon finally get a touchdown. I wanted to ... celebrate with him," Darling said.

The other happened when Williams, after making a leaping catch for a 26-yard gain to the Arizona 15 that set up Mason's 13-yard touchdown catch, spun the ball onto the ground. It is considered the same as a spike, and the Ravens were given a 5-yard delay-of-game penalty.

"I didn't think it was that bad of a toss. I got caught up in the emotion; it happened," Williams said. "They did it, too, but they didn't get called for it. It's one of those things you've got to be careful because you can't do it right in front of the ref, because they will definitely call it."

Warner steps back in

Former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Kurt Warner, who lost his starting job with the Cardinals to then-rookie Matt Leinart last year, might have regained it with his performance yesterday.

After subbing on one first-half series - and leading the Cardinals to a field goal - Warner gave the Ravens fits after replacing Warner for good late in the third quarter.

Warner led the Cardinals on three scoring drives, hitting Anquan Boldin (14 catches for 181 yards) for two touchdowns, and led another drive that ended with Neil Rackers tying the game at 23 on a 41-yard field goal with 1:50 to go. Warner finished 15-for-20 for 258 yards.

"I still feel like I can play at a very high level," said Warner, 36. "I think there are a lot of teams out there that I could start for. You know your window is only so big. You want to play as much as you possibly can. I love being a Cardinal, I love working with Matt. I love growing together in this organization, but there's no question I would love to play and start."

Leinart was kept in check - the second-year quarterback finished 9-for-20 for only 53 yards - but Warner seemed to know exactly where to throw the ball.

"Maybe he's a veteran guy, he knew what to look for," Ravens safety Dawan Landry said. "Maybe a little more poised than Matt Leinart today. He's a former MVP, so you've got to give him credit, too."

Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, meanwhile, quelled any notion of a quarterback controversy.

"Matt is still our starting quarterback," Whisenhunt said, noting that Warner was inserted primarily during the offense's no-huddle alignment.

The hit on Heap

After making a catch for a 12-yard gain to set up the game-winning field goal, Heap took a helmet-to-helmet shot from Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson, who was called for unnecessary roughness.

A team spokesman said later that Heap suffered a mild concussion.

"I took a good shot, but I feel a lot better now," Heap said later. "I'm really not certain what happened after that, but I did kind of wake up enough to see that I did make that catch."

Asked if he remembered talking with Boller afterward, Heap said, "No I don't remember that. I remember sitting down on the sidelines and the doctors talking to me, but that's about it."

Heap said he had some tingling afterward, but it went away.

"The doctor's checked me out and said I was good to go," Heap said. "I think it's a day-to-day thing right now."

Cardinals see red

Several Cardinals players reportedly were incensed that Wilson was assessed a 15-yard penalty for his hit on Heap, a turn of events that helped prolong the Ravens' game-winning drive.

"We know we're not going to get calls because no one respects us," Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "It's like we have to blow teams out in order to win. We just have to play like it's us against everyone."

Referee Jerome Boger told the Arizona Republic that Wilson was flagged for launching into Heap with his forearm.

End zone

Ravens center Mike Flynn said he dislocated the middle finger on his right hand. Flynn came out of the game to have his hand X-rayed but later returned. Flynn said he thought he might have suffered the dislocation getting the finger caught on someone's jersey. ... In addition to cornerback Samari Rolle (illness), offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (hyperextended toe and sprained foot) and defensive end Trevor Pryce (broken wrist), the Ravens deactivated running backs Mike Anderson and Cory Ross, tight end Daniel Wilcox and kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd.

edward.lee@baltsun.com don.markus@baltsun.com

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