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Baltimore's Rod Woodson: The safety is on
By ERNEST HOOPER
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2001
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The scene was not unlike any other for an NFL prospect hoping to impress scouts.
The flashy defensive back had summoned any interested team to come watch him run the 40-yard dash and go through drills at his alma mater. He was eager to show them what he already knew, that he could play on Sundays.
What made this tryout so different was the player in question. Rod Woodson had proved he could do it, already starred in the NFL for 10 seasons and too many Sundays to count. Yet after a 1995 knee injury and an unimpressive '96 campaign, Woodson was a free agent having to show his worth all over again at Purdue University's indoor facility in 1997.
"When you're past 30 and you have a serious injury, everybody writes you off," said Woodson, who was the Steelers' first-round pick in 1987. "Nobody knows what's around the corner for them. I played 10 great years in Pittsburgh and had done some wonderful things in this league, but it's, "What have you done for me lately?' "And it's just part of human nature. I didn't know where I was going to be at that point, four or five years down the road."
Woodson, 35, showed enough that day at Purdue to earn a contract with San Francisco. After an NFC championship season with the 49ers in 1997, he landed in Baltimore in '98 and the rebirth began in earnest. Woodson moved from cornerback to free safety, and the Ravens defense began to move into the league's elite.
It took a year, but Woodson returned to the Pro Bowl in 1999 and will make his ninth trip to Honolulu a week after the Super Bowl in Tampa. The transition from cornerback to safety was impressive, but not unexpected when you consider he played safety for the Boilermakers.
"The cornerback position and safety are completely different," Woodson said. "At cornerback, you might have one guy in front of you ... most of the time you're looking at the receiver in front of you.
"At safety, you're reading the whole offense from guard to tackle. I've got to read the No. 1 receiver, the No. 2 receiver. It's understanding more of the game, the bigger picture. It's made me more of a complete player. A lot of times at corner, my eyes got me in trouble. They can get you in trouble at safety, but they can be your friend more often than not."
Thanks in part to Woodson's leadership and play, Baltimore's defense is being classified as one the NFL's greatest, and it may be labeled the greatest if the Ravens beat the Giants.
Defensive tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams engulf the interior of offensive lines, defensive ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett control the outside and the Ray Lewis-led linebacking corps patrols all over the field.
The quality of Baltimore's defensive front almost makes the Ravens secondary an afterthought, until you remember one of the greatest players in the league's 77 seasons plays safety. Woodson, a member of the NFL's 75th anniversary team, had four interceptions and 10 passes defensed this season while recording 82 tackles, fourth-highest on the team.
"I don't really see a lot of difference in him now than I did five or six years ago," Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon said. "I watched him on film against Arizona ... and Jake Plummer does a real nice job of holding the safety and he's staring this way while wanting to throw to the right. But Woodson meets the receiver and ball at impact. His range is phenomenal.
"From the free safety standpoint, he's probably as good as there is in the National Football League."
In the post-season, Woodson is tied for second behind Lewis with 18 stops and he has defended two passes. But Woodson is not just playing well, he's sharing his wisdom with the three other starters who have played a combined nine seasons.
"He's the father of the secondary," second-year cornerback Chris McAlister said. "He's constantly talking to everybody, making sure we're all aware of what's going on and exactly how to do our job better. We just take the information that he gives us and it makes our reads a lot easier."
Overall, the secondary has not been a disappointment, recording 19 of the Ravens' 23 interceptions and helping limit opponents to 187.3 yards passing a game in the regular season.
Still, the prevailing thought is that the best way to attack the Ravens is throwing the ball. The Jets and the Titans are the only teams to score more than nine points against Baltimore in the second half of the season, and the Jets passed for 473 yards, the Titans 258.
Woodson said he and the secondary will welcome that challenge if the Giants decide to air it out.
"You have to start with the front seven on any defense," Woodson said. "We do have a good front seven and when you're getting pressure on the quarterback, it's so much easier for your DBs to play good football because you know you can be more aggressive, play faster because you know the quarterback is not going to have 10 seconds to scramble around.
"We (the secondary) have come around and played some solid football in this playoff run."
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