Once picked on, corners turn into cornerstones

Ravens 34, Giants 7

January 29, 2001|By MIKE PRESTON

TAMPA, Fla. - During most of the regular season, cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chris McAlister were the most maligned players on the Ravens' defense.

At one point, they almost changed their names to Achilles Heels after Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell lighted them up in Game 2.

But during the Ravens' playoff run, the tandem has been nearly perfect, and they were again last night in the Ravens' 34-7 win over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV at Raymond James Stadium.

McAlister and Starks survived early-season growing pains and added Giants receivers Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer to the list of receivers they have shut down in the postseason.

Let's see, there was Denver's Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith, Oakland's Tim Brown, Andre Rison and James Jett and Tennessee's Yancey Thigpen and Carl Pickens. All were supposed to torch and burn Starks and McAlister.

They're still waiting. And waiting, and waiting ...

There was no need for a recount in Florida last night. Hilliard had only three catches for 30 yards and Toomer had just two for 24. And the winners were easily McAlister and Starks, who have been in the league two and three years, respectively.

Starks had perhaps the biggest play of the game, a 49-yard interception he returned for a touchdown in the third quarter to give the Ravens a 17-0 lead with 3:40 remaining.

"The questions have got to end now about them," said Ravens defensive tackle Sam Adams. "They've been showing up big-time, especially in the playoffs. They've got to end. We're world champions. How many picks did they have tonight? ... Wow... Wow. ... Best ever? Might be. At least this year."

Actually, what McAlister and Starks did was play like veterans and play head games with Giants quarterback Kerry Collins. They played soft for several plays, and then would jump the short routes in the Giants' West Coast offense. Before Starks' interception, he had given up a couple of short passes on square-outs. But on the interception, he beat Toomer to the spot on a short look-in and ran untouched for a touchdown.

"The thing is I gave him a few passes early to bait him into throwing it again," said Starks, who finished with five tackles and knocked down two passes. "I played soft and I played soft, and I took my chance when I knew I had a great shot to do it. And, hey, it's going to cost them."

The Giants never had a chance to catch him. Starks is one of the fastest players on the team.

"I felt good," Starks said. "You know, I got a couple of interceptions earlier in the year, but I never ran one back for a touchdown. But I said, `This game is going to be the one I run it back for a touchdown.' All those interceptions that I didn't run for a touchdown? I was saving it for the Super Bowl."

McAlister also had an interception with 54 seconds left in the first half, and even though he didn't score, the play had significant impact. At that point, the Ravens were ahead only 10-0, and the Giants had a first-and-10 at the Ravens' 29-yard line.

Collins tried to lob the ball over McAlister and safety Kim Herring for Hilliard, but McAlister snatched it. That was another time McAlister and Starks baited him.

"We had a double move on, and they did a good job of disguising the coverage," Collins said of the McAlister interception. "The coverage I thought I was going to get after I took the snap from center wasn't what we had. It was just a misread and a bad read on my part. Obviously, we were in a position to put some points on the board and it was very costly. They did a good job of disguising coverages all day."

But McAlister and Starks were just as effective in run support. Besides vicious hits on Toomer and Hilliard after catches, they were quick to come up on the corners and either tackle running back Tiki Barber or force him inside.

"It feels great. There has not been a better moment in my life," McAlister said. "I can't even put it in words. Duane and I have had some ups and downs, but his runback of that interception was a huge play. I think people know how I feel."

McAlister said: "They know that I think we are the best tandem out there. There are other tandems just as good, but we have taken it to a new level during the playoffs. Denver, Tennessee, Oakland. We've stepped it up."

It looks like the money the team invested in Starks and McAlister is paying off. Starks was the team's No. 1 draft pick, No. 10 overall, in 1998. McAlister was taken in the same slot and same position a year later. Starks, who has been picked on a lot this season, finished with three interceptions in the postseason. McAlister had one.

"They never allowed me to get into a rhythm with our offense or our receivers," Collins said of McAlister and Starks.

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