Backup Plan

The Ravens think Deion Sanders can help get them to the Super Bowl, even in the role of part-time nickelback
September 19, 2004

In many ways Sunday was like old times for new Ravens nickelback Deion Sanders. He arrived at Cleveland Browns Stadium in a snazzy suit, white tie and white bowler hat. He got the full villain's treatment from the fans (replete with an end-zone sign that screamed PAST YOUR PRIMETIME) when he took the field for pregame warmups, and drew wide-eyed stares from opposing players. ("He's the Michael Jordan of our sport," said Browns wideout Quincy Morgan.) He lined up against the best receivers Cleveland had to offer and didn't have a pass thrown his way all afternoon.

There was one big difference, though: Appearing in his first game after a three-year retirement, the 37-year-old Sanders was not a starter but a member of Baltimore's sub package. He participated in only 15 of 55 plays and was on the field to return only one of Cleveland's seven punts (for five yards). Except for times when he tried to play while injured, Sanders had never been a part-time player in his 12-year NFL career with the Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys and Redskins. But this is the lot he has chosen, and this is the way the Ravens plan to use him. They believe the only way to keep Sanders healthy for what they hope will be a journey deep into the postseason is to use him judiciously. Don't ever expect to see him in the starting lineup.

"It won't happen," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said last Saturday night, on the eve of Baltimore's stunning 20--3 loss to the Browns. "Just won't happen--I mean, unless we get an unbelievable run of injuries. Our goal is to be playing all the way to Feb. 6 [Super Bowl Sunday], and we all agree that the best way for Deion to help us get there is for him to play between 20 and 25 plays a game."

Coming back after such a long absence--he last played in December 2000, at the end of an injury-plagued season with Washington--is a big enough adjustment for Sanders. He had been hampered by a painful turf toe injury that season, and after retirement he had surgery on his foot. And he is 37.

In the Ravens' sub defense starting right cornerback Gary Baxter moves inside to cover a slot receiver, and Sanders plays right corner, usually going against a wideout one-on-one. On 12 of his 15 plays against Cleveland, Sanders played at least five yards off the receiver and provided his familiar clingy-but-not-physical coverage. To no one's surprise, he had no tackles.

But the Ravens didn't sign him for his tackling ability. They signed him to do what he accomplished against the Browns: Make the offense think twice before throwing to his side of the field. But will that happen week after week, especially given his infrequent appearances? A nickelback is like a DH in baseball: He has to get revved up for a play (maybe two), then sit for an extended period, play a down, sit again and on and on.

Sanders covered Morgan on Cleveland's first third-down situation, sat for nine minutes in real time, covered Morgan on another third down, sat for 17 minutes, covered Morgan, sat for 12 minutes, covered Morgan on consecutive plays, sat for 22 minutes, and then covered Andre' Davis for the first time. "It's a great approach for me to get back into the swing of things," says Sanders. "Better than being an every-down player."

Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia missed a golden opportunity to test Sanders, on the play immediately following the corner's 22-minute stretch on the sideline. On third-and-nine from the Baltimore 20, Davis ran a deep cross two yards into the end zone. When he came out of his cut, Davis had a couple of steps on Sanders. But Garcia, under pressure, dumped a pass in the direction of running back William Green that fell incomplete. Later, Davis said he was praying Garcia would throw it to him. "I wanted that ball so bad--so bad," Davis said. "Could you imagine, catching a ball like that in Deion's comeback game? People will look at the game and say Deion shut us down, but you saw the play."

Maybe that's the best way to attack Sanders: after he has been off the field for a long spell, when perhaps his muscles have tightened a bit. But if he continues to take away a part of the field on obvious passing downs, the $1.5 million that Baltimore invested would be money well-spent.

COLOR PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (2) ALL IN A DAY'S WORK Sanders drew the usual taunts from opposing fans, but the Browns' offense didn't test him.
COLOR PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (2) ALL IN A DAY'S WORK Sanders drew the usual taunts from opposing fans, but the Browns' offense didn't test him.