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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Colts Reggie Wayne Steps Up As Marvin Harrson Sits Out

I don't know what's wrong with Marvin Harrison's knee, but it's good in a way, because Gonzalez can get more reps. Thus, when Harrison does return, the Colts will have the best set of receivers -- Harrison, Wayne, Clark, and Gonsalez -- in the NFL.

INDIANAPOLIS (ESPN) -- Having averaged 78.5 catches, 1,103.3 yards and 8.3 touchdowns in the past four seasons as a starter, wide receiver Reggie Wayne wasn't quite sure how much more he could do to further establish himself as one of the NFL's premier playmakers.

And then eight-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Marvin Harrison suffered a debilitating knee injury in the Colts' victory over the Denver Broncos on Sept. 30, and everyone found out.

That's because when Harrison went down, Wayne's production went up. And the player considered by many to be the best No. 2 wideout in the league demonstrated that he is more than just a complementary component in the Indianapolis passing attack. He's no longer the "other" guy for quarterback Peyton Manning.

"He became the absolute biggest piece of our passing offense," tight end Dallas Clark said. "Right now, everything revolves around him. I mean, Marvin, with everything that he's done and accomplished, and probably going into the Hall of Fame some day, he casts a big shadow.

"But the past six or seven games, or whatever it's been, Reggie has shown that he doesn't have to play in anyone's shadow."

In every NFL season, there are players who step up to compensate for the loss of injured or departed teammates, or who simply seize the opportunity for quality playing time and then emerge as standouts in their own right. This year is no different.

The 2007 season has produced potential stars, such as running backs Justin Fargas (Oakland), LenDale White (Tennessee) and Ryan Grant (Green Bay), safety O.J. Atogwe (St. Louis), defensive end Trent Cole (Philadelphia), weakside linebacker James Harrison (Pittsburgh) and wide receiver Brandon Marshall (Denver), among others.

Wayne, though, was already well-known. He was a first-round draft choice in 2001 (from the University of Miami), and he posted three straight 1,000-yard seasons and went to his first Pro Bowl in 2006. So based on his résumé alone, Wayne was expected to have a good season. But no one expected such a big season, especially without Harrison lining up across the formation from him.

For the season, Wayne, 29, has 76 catches for 1,169 yards and eight touchdowns. At his current pace, he would finish with 101 receptions, 1,559 yards and 11 scores. That would be 15 more catches and 200-plus more yards than his career bests.

And if he indeed reaches those numbers? Consider it remarkable, simply because there is basically no other viable wide receiver in the lineup to draw the coverage away from him.

Clark has enjoyed a career season, too, and his versatility creates matchup problems for every Colts' opponent, because he can align in the slot or as a traditional in-line tight end. But with Harrison out of the lineup, and rookie first-rounder Anthony Gonzalez just now getting up to speed after rehabilitating from a broken finger, secondaries have focused their efforts on stopping Wayne.

And, for the most part, have failed.

"No doubt about it, he has stepped up his game, gone to another level with [Harrison] out of there," said Jacksonville cornerback Brian Williams, who was torched for a 48-yard touchdown catch by Wayne on Sunday. "He's taken [it] on himself to get better, and he has. He just keeps getting open. It's kind of frustrating not being able to stop him, because you know on the big downs that Manning is looking his way."

Stepping It Up

Besides Reggie Wayne, here are five other veterans who, given more playing time and responsibility, have dramatically increased their production and raised their profiles in 2007:

Trent Cole, DE, Philadelphia: Always an effective situational rusher, the three-year veteran (in photo above) moved into the starting lineup this season when the coaches decided that Darren Howard and Jevon Kearse were in decline. Cole has 9-1/2 sacks.

Justin Fargas, RB, Oakland: Pretty much an afterthought when the season began, he was buried behind LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes on the depth chart -- Fargas has rushed 181 times for 863 yards and three touchdowns, and has four 100-yard outings.

James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh: Took over the weakside vacancy created by the offseason release of Joey Porter and has been a monster in the Steelers' 3-4 front, with 75 tackles, 8-1/2 sacks and seven forced fumbles.

Brandon Marshall, WR, Denver: With star wideout Javon Walker sidelined much of the year by a knee injury, the second-year speedster from Central Florida has flourished, and has 65 catches for 914 yards and four touchdowns.

LenDale White, RB, Tennessee: Out of shape, overweight and frequently injured as a rookie in 2006, the former Reggie Bush running mate at Southern Cal started the year on the bench, and no better than No. 3 on the depth chart. But when starter Chris Brown was injured, White became the Titans' power back, and he's rushed for 754 yards and six scores.

-- Len Pasquarelli

In the eight games since Harrison was injured, Wayne has 55 catches for 862 yards and five touchdowns. In the seven games that Indianapolis has played without Harrison -- the Colts' star played a limited number of snaps in the Oct. 22 contest at Jacksonville, but mostly as a decoy, catching only three passes for 16 yards -- Wayne has 46 receptions for 731 yards and five touchdowns.

"I think I've always been a hard worker," Wayne said. "But, if possible, I've forced myself to work even harder the past month or two. We're the defending Super Bowl champions, and we want to repeat.

"Sure, it's a little harder with Marvin not out there, but we've got guys who can make plays. You don't want to let guys down. I'm just trying to play my part, that's all."

In terms of production from the Indianapolis wide receivers, though, Wayne is virtually playing all the parts.

He has registered three 100-yard outings in the seven games in which Harrison has not played. In fact, three of the six career games in which Wayne has more than 140 receiving yards have come in the past six weeks with Harrison out of the lineup. In that same stretch, all the other Indianapolis wide receivers have totaled just 34 catches and 350 yards -- and no touchdowns.

Wayne is blessed with deceptive speed and has matured as a technically solid route runner. Manning loves to throw the ball to spots and counts on his receivers to get there, and Wayne has become increasingly polished at finding the open spaces. He isn't quite as precise as Harrison but is adept at double-move routes, and he works well off the sleight-of-hand play fakes at which Manning is so adroit. Oh, and Wayne has excellent burst to the ball when it's in the air.

On his 48-yard touchdown reception Sunday, which came one snap after Manning had absorbed a sack and faced a third-and-16, the Colts' quarterback was just trying to get some yardage back so that Adam Vinatieri would have a makeable field goal. But then he spotted Wayne streaking past the Jacksonville secondary. For a second or so, it appeared Manning's pass might be a stride two long, but Wayne accelerated and caught it on his finger tips.

It was, Manning acknowledged, the kind of play the Colts have come to expect from Wayne on a regular basis. And have come to increasingly rely on, since Harrison remains out of the lineup while rehabilitating for what the Colts hope will be a late-season return.

Time was when Wayne was viewed as the sidekick part of the Indianapolis wide receiver equation. Now he's the one kicking the butts of opposition cornerbacks when the Colts need a big, vertical play.

"He's definitely a playmaker," Manning said. "You can see how much he wants the ball and how much confidence he has. There's a big element of trust involved in our passing game, and we all trust that Reggie is going to keep making plays for us."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Four Ravens fined for improper conduct relating to officials

The numerous fines are unjust and uncalled for.

National Football League

Four Baltimore Ravens players have been fined for violating league rules prohibiting the abuse of game officials, the NFL announced Friday.

Bart Scott was fined $25,000 for verbally abusing game officials and throwing an official’s flag into the stands during last Monday night’s Baltimore-New England game.

Samari Rolle, Chris McAlister, and Derrick Mason were fined $15,000 each for publicly questioning the integrity of the officiating in last Monday night’s game.

“This is about the importance of sportsmanship and respecting the integrity of our game,” said NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Ray Anderson. “We do not tolerate inappropriate conduct between teams and game officials. This includes reminding game officials that they are to conduct themselves at all times as professionals in their dealings with players, coaches, and other club personnel.”

Anderson went to Baltimore this week to speak directly with Scott and Rolle before issuing the fines Friday.

“Last Monday night’s game was well officiated,” Anderson said, “and it is the obligation of both players and coaches to maintain proper respect for game officials at all times.”

In addition to prohibiting physical contact with game officials, league rules also bar team personnel from verbal or other non-physical abuse of officials and from public criticism of their integrity.

"As I said earlier this week, our actions were not appropriate near the end of our game against the Patriots," said Ravens coach Brian Billick in a statement. "We, our players and coaches, understand and accept the fines levied by Commissioner Goodell. We believe in the integrity of NFL officials and don't believe they, in any way, favored the Patriots with their calls.

"As a team, we've discussed a number of times about not speaking publicly about any unhappiness we have with the officials. As emotional as the end of Monday's game was, I should have reminded the players of that in our post-game meeting. That's my mistake. We do appreciate the extra step taken by the Commissioner's Office when Ray Anderson came here yesterday to talk with some of our players."

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