Ravens' corners look for edge

Baxter, McAlister face big-time tests vs. Bucs

September 12, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Gary Baxter will receive his much-anticipated initiation.

Chris McAlister will receive his long-awaited measuring stick.

The Ravens' cornerbacks face different challenges when they go against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their Pro Bowl receivers, Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell, on Sunday.

For Baxter, it will be a chance to start his life as an NFL cornerback. For McAlister, it will be an opportunity to end his average play.

"It's going to be a judgment test for the secondary," Baxter said.

Although the Ravens won't reveal their defensive strategy, there's a strong possibility that McAlister will shadow Johnson and Baxter will follow McCardell.

Throughout the offseason and training camp, McAlister talked about this meeting. In his fourth season, he has earned respect from around the NFL, but he now wants the league's attention.

Last year, McAlister won his showdown against Johnson, who caught four passes for 29 yards against the Ravens. But Johnson was still a factor, making the key block on McAlister to spring Mike Alstott for his 32-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Unlike a lot of NFL corners, McAlister can match Johnson's size and physical play. Repeating such a performance could justify his place among the elite cornerbacks.

"He's one of the big-name receivers that I face this year," McAlister said. "To go out and have a solid game against him would prove to myself the type of player I'm capable of being."

Besides outplaying Johnson, McAlister is confident he can keep up with the trash-talking, too.

"I don't know how much talking going to go on," McAlister said. "I'm pretty sure if it starts, it's not going to stop."

To catapult into that upper echelon, McAlister has to avoid recent lapses.

In a preseason game in Philadelphia, he was caught out of position a few times. In last week's season opener, he got turned the wrong way on a couple of fakes by Carolina receiver Muhsin Muhammad.

The Panthers' only touchdown drive was helped by McAlister biting the opposite way on a 33-yard flea-flicker. In the second half, he rebounded into form.

"He's got to step up his consistency," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Chris is as talented a corner as there is in the league and he's on a contract year. What a great opportunity. But you can't give up a pitch-back pass and expect to be in a Pro Bowl or to gain that kind of contract."

Meanwhile, Baxter knows he will have ample opportunity to prove himself. Tampa Bay will likely attack Baxter in his first NFL start and avoid an established cornerback like McAlister.

"I know they're going to come see me," Baxter said. "I expect that they're going to come at me first, but I expect make plays off that, too.

Baxter, a second-round pick in the 2001 draft, has had a painful road to the starting lineup.

He sprained a knee ligament in last year's training camp and broke his hand in a June passing camp this year. He's also had to make the transition from safety to cornerback slowed by a hamstring injury, which sidelined him for most of the preseason.

"I think I'm ready," Baxter said. "I don't know if the time I missed hurt me."

In the season opener, Baxter logged in 18 plays as the nickel back and made a timely fourth-quarter tackle on Muhammad that stopped him short of a first down. Now, he has to tough it out for 60 plays.

"If Gary stays healthy, he's going to be a very good player," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "Not just a good player - a great player."

Unlike last year's cornerback combination, the Ravens can play a more physical style with Baxter replacing Duane Starks. They may look to lock up with Johnson and McCardell because Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson isn't known for going over the top of defenses.

But Johnson and McCardell represent one of the most consistent pairs on the Ravens' schedule this season. Over the past six seasons, Johnson has averaged 80 catches and McCardell 83.

"That's something you look forward to, going against the best receivers," Baxter said. "If you want to be the best in this league, you got to go against the top receivers. I think that's a great way for me to come out."

Next for Ravens

Opponent:Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Site:Ravens Stadium

When:Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio:Ch. 45/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line:Bucs by 3 1/2

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