Owens matchup excites McAlister

For cornerback seeking recognition, top-flight 49er serves as another test

November 28, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

When asked about his sizable matchup with San Francisco receiver Terrell Owens, Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister rattled off their heights and weights like a tale of the tape.

In many ways, Sunday is McAlister's heavyweight prize fight.

Always considered a talented cornerback, McAlister wants what Owens has: Pro Bowl stature. If McAlister can take away Owens' impact in their first head-to-head showdown, it'll go a long way in moving him further up the NFL ranks.

"He's going to have that opportunity, and I think he'll be up to the challenge," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "But he understands when people look at him in that vein, they're going to look at him against the best."

While McAlister is shooting for his first Pro Bowl, Owens has gone to three straight.

After shaking off a disappointing first half of the season, Owens is tied for seventh in the NFL with 61 catches. Over the previous three seasons, he has established himself as one of the league's premier playmakers, averaging 97 catches for 1,388 yards and 14 touchdowns.

McAlister understands if he can silence Owens, he can create some noise for himself.

"If I play well, I think it will open their eyes," McAlister said. "But at the same time, I've had these matchups before and I've had success before, and people's eyes are still being glued shut."

What McAlister has failed to do in the past is have success on a weekly basis.

This season, McAlister has never been more consistent, shutting down the opposition's top receiver for the past five weeks. He has held Denver's Rod Smith, Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith, St. Louis' Torry Holt, Miami's Chris Chambers and Seattle's Koren Robinson to an average of four catches for 46 yards.

His best showing was taking Holt, the NFL's leading receiver with 1,285 yards, out of the game. His biggest mistake was using press coverage without any safety help against Robinson, who burned McAlister for his only touchdown allowed in this torrid five-game run.

Many teams even have shied away from going to their No. 1 receiver because they didn't want to risk an interception by McAlister.

But on Sunday, he knows he will be busy. The 49ers have thrown to Owens 113 times (10.3 times a game), which is tied for third most in the NFL.

"If there's a one-on-one to watch," Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said, "that's probably as good as one in the game."

At 6 feet 1, 206 pounds with outstanding speed, McAlister is one of the few cornerbacks in the NFL capable of shadowing the 6-3, 226-pound Owens.

"I don't think size is going to be a big factor when you look at the matchup," McAlister said. "It's just how do you want to play and that's going to be it. Talent is going to take over."

The Ravens made the decision to place McAlister on the opposition's top receiver five weeks ago. Over that time, the defense has improved from ninth to fifth in the league (in terms of yardage) and the pass defense has jumped from 17th to eighth.

"I think the thing that makes them a lot better is McAlister is playing a lot better," Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt said before the game with the Ravens two weeks ago. "They can put him on the best receiver and lock him on and take that receiver out of the game. That frees up one of the safeties that they can blitz and do a lot more things. They get you because you're really not sure where they are going to be."

The big factor for McAlister is to limit Owens' yardage as much as his catches.

Owens has six catches of 25 or more yards and a third of his 840 receiving yards have come after the catch. Known for his brash touchdown celebrations - he pulled out a Sharpie to sign a football last year and borrowed a cheerleader's pom-poms later that season - Owens is on a roll with touchdown receptions in his past three games.

"As far as our big plays are concerned, he is the one that makes them," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said. "He is a real key as well as getting him the ball so he can run with it."

The Ravens are confident McAlister can handle Owens' best punch.

"When Chris makes his mind up," linebacker Ray Lewis said, "ain't too many people are going to catch too many passes."

NOTES: Starting defensive end Tony Weaver (neck) was declared out for Sunday's game. That means increased playing time for rookie Jarret Johnson, Maake Kemoeatu and Riddick Parker. ... Wide receiver Marcus Robinson, who caught a team-record four touchdowns Sunday, was added to the injury report as questionable when he complained of discomfort in his chest. No problems were found after undergoing tests, and the injury is not considered serious. ... Cornerback Tom Knight (ankle) was downgraded to doubtful. Billick said cornerback Corey Fuller (leg) likely will be limited to passing situations, which amounts to 35 to 40 snaps.

Next for Ravens

Matchup: San Francisco 49ers (5-6) vs. Ravens (6-5)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

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

Line: Ravens by 3

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