Corners were in the middle of teams' wild-card meeting


McAlister, Starks plan to make difference again

Ravens notebook

Pro Football

September 28, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Chris McAlister said that he and Duane Starks had begun to jell well before the Ravens dominated the Denver Broncos in last season's wild-card game, but that New Year's Eve romp is still viewed as a coming-out party for one of the NFL's most promising cornerback combinations.

A 21-3 victory at PSINet represented a postseason scoring low for Denver. The Ravens had already established an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a season, and shutting down Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith, who had combined for 201 catches in the regular season, added to the swagger of the two young corners.

"Going into that game, everyone was looking for us to match up with the Vikings or St. Louis," coach Brian Billick said of last season's most highly regarded offenses.

"But didn't Denver and Oakland have the No. 1- and 2-ranked offenses? When you play a team that is statistically the best, and you play as well as you did [against Denver], you come away feeling, `Who wants to come at us now?'

"That was a big part of our confidence. As good as the teams we were facing were, the combination of McCaffrey and Smith was as good as anybody's."

McAlister and Starks began last season with a combined three years of pro experience. Denver marked their postseason debut, but McAlister downplays the notion that it was a watershed game.

"We had been playing well up to that point, and it just happened that people describe the playoff game as a turning point," McAlister said. "For weeks before that, Duane and I had picked up our play. I can't say it was a turning point; it's just when everybody else got a chance to see us play."

The Broncos will give the Ravens a different look Sunday at Invesco Field. Denver will have quarterback Brian Griese, who didn't play at PSINet Stadium last December. It will be without McCaffrey, who broke a leg in the opener and is done for the season. All Smith did in McCaffrey's absence in Arizona last Sunday was haul in a franchise-record 14 receptions for 162 yards.

The previous franchise record of 13 receptions in a game was set by Lionel Taylor back in the AFL days, and matched by Bobby Anderson, Smith and one Shannon Sharpe, in 1996.

"We know that he [Smith] is their definite go-to guy," McAlister said "With McCaffrey, you knew they were capable of throwing to either one. Now, you know, when they need a possession, they're going to try to get the ball in Rod's hands."

Arizona did not double-team Smith, and McAlister said that the Ravens are better equipped to try single coverage on the receiver who leads the NFL in catches (23) and receiving yards (277).

"I like to believe that with the pressure we get up front, it makes our job easier," McAlister said of he and Starks, who had a tentative 2001 debut in Cincinnati after an August knee injury. "It's going to be easier for us than a lot of teams to go out there and play man-to-man coverage."

Mutual wounds

Baltimore's receiving corps isn't exactly fit, either.

Qadry Ismail injured a hip against Chicago and aggravated it in the loss in Cincinnati. Brandon Stokley, the other starter, strained a ligament in his right knee on a shot at a 37-yard touchdown pass. That incompletion came in the game's sixth minute, but with the Ravens running plenty of three-receiver sets and fifth man Jermaine Lewis home nursing a hamstring, Stokley played on.

"I couldn't get any burst," Stokley said. "For a couple of plays, I didn't have it taped, and that really affected me. Once I got it taped up, I went back in when people needed to come out. It's progressing."

With rookie tight end Todd Heap (ankle) not practicing yesterday and still listed as doubtful, there's added pressure on the wide receivers.

Counting Leon Searcy, who's still rehabilitating his arm, the injury report grew to eight names as safety Rod Woodson also sat out yesterday's practice to rest an ailing hamstring. Asked the specific nature of the injury, Woodson said, "I'm 36, with 15 years in the league."

Woodson is listed as questionable, along with Lewis, Stokley, defensive end Michael McCrary (knee) and right tackle Sammy Williams (knee). Linebacker Brad Jackson (chest) remained probable.

"Stokley has done well, and Jermaine is getting a fair amount of reaction," trainer Bill Tessendorf said. "With Rod [Woodson], we're just trying to be careful."

End zone

Director of player development Earnest Byner's celebrity golf classic raised $35,000 to $40,000 for charity. A reception and silent auction was held at Jillians in Arundel Mills Mall on Monday, followed by the golf tournament Tuesday. Proceeds benefited The House With a Heart Foundation.

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