ATLANTA -- When rookie cornerback Chris McAlister trotted onto the field to open the second half yesterday with the rest of the Ravens' basic, 11-man defense, he looked like a starter for the first time in 1999.
Ravens coach Brian Billick would not go so far as to call McAlister a starter after his team beat the Falcons in overtime, 19-13, although McAlister did replace struggling, second-year cornerback Duane Starks throughout the third quarter.
Later in the fourth quarter, Starks re-entered the game with the base defense, while McAlister replaced fourth-year cornerback DeRon Jenkins, who also had his ups and downs yesterday.
McAlister certainly finished the game like a legitimate starter. During Atlanta's lone possession in overtime, Falcons quarterback Danny Kanell zeroed in on McAlister twice. Each time, McAlister forced an incompletion while covering Chris Calloway. His blanket, man-to-man coverage on Calloway on third down forced the punt that gave the Ravens the ball on their winning possession.
So who are the starters here anyway?
"We feel good about all three of the corners," Billick said. "We're lucky we have three corners who are capable. Whoever is playing well, that's the way it's going to happen."
Until yesterday, McAlister had been used only in the nickel package against three-receiver sets, while Jenkins and Starks had started every half in the team's basic set.
That was before Starks, off to a puzzling start in 1999, suffered through an unproductive first half in which he allowed Calloway and Terance Mathis an assortment of gains of 12 to 18 yards, mainly on out patterns and slants.
McAlister said he learned about the switch from defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis just before the Ravens' defense took the field for its first appearance of the second half.
"[Lewis] didn't tell me anything until we got on the field," said McAlister, who deflected two passes yesterday. "Our offense had the ball on third down, and he told me they were making the switch. I just tried to stay focused and play hard."
McAlister was the most effective player in an otherwise soft secondary, which allowed 257 passing yards to the backup combination of Tony Graziani and Kanell. But even McAlister produced a blooper at the end of the first half when he allowed Calloway to beat him badly, only to be overthrown in the end zone by Kanell.
McAlister said he gave away his strategy of taking away the out pattern too easily, and Calloway burned him by staying inside. The two collided briefly before Calloway left him behind.
"I was squatting, expecting [Calloway] to run the out, but he continued vertical. That's when we collided," McAlister said. "But [Kanell] kind of bailed me out by throwing the ball out of bounds. I definitely felt like I dodged a bullet. That taught me a lesson."
The lessons keep coming for Starks and Jenkins. And the Ravens' curious philosophy of taking away the big play but giving up too many first downs with soft coverage underneath continues to hurt them.
Jenkins and Starks set the tone by surrendering first-down completions on third-and-long situations on the Falcons' first possession, a 16-play, 59-yard drive that ended with Morten Andersen's missed 33-yard field goal attempt. It continued with Jenkins' missed tackle on a 10-yard completion that fullback Bob Christian ruined by fumbling the ball away to the Ravens. McAlister recovered the ball.
Starks then allowed completions of 12 and 18 yards to Calloway later in the half before taking a seat on the bench and becoming the nickel back in the third quarter.
"When you're in a zone and you're told to cover [against the] deep [pass], that's what you have to do. I have to play the coverage," Starks said.
"I would like to press a little more, but I can only play what the coaches call. I'd like to get up and challenge more, instead of having to anticipate what route they're running while I'm playing off the receiver."
Billick defended the second-half cornerback rotation. He also strongly endorsed McAlister's play.
"We said we were going to have that rotation. It gives each a guy a chance to talk with Marvin on the side and see what's going on," Billick said. "We've got to get Chris in there. I like his competitiveness. This guy is a player."
Pub Date: 10/04/99