Thigpen goes to school on McAlister; In first start, rookie bested by Titans WR; Cornerback 101

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Call it Yancey Thigpen's way of welcoming rookie cornerback Chris McAlister to the NFL.

There was McAlister, making the first start of his promising career -- and doing so at the expense of fellow first-round draft pick Duane Starks -- in Tennessee on Sunday. There was McAlister, tracking Thigpen closely in man-to-man coverage near the right sideline, where the Titans' receiver slowed down and turned slightly toward the line of scrimmage as quarterback Neil O'Donnell pump-faked.

And as McAlister took the bait, looked at O'Donnell and fell for Thigpen's stop-and-go move, there went Thigpen. He blew past McAlister and coasted into the end zone, where he settled under O'Donnell's pass for a 27-yard touchdown that turned out to be the decisive play in the Ravens' 14-11 loss.

"I think I've gotten better as the weeks have gone on," McAlister said. "[The Ravens] have brought me along slowly but surely. They've gotten me acclimated. I've been adjusting to the speed of the receivers in this league. There is still work that needs to be done."

The on-the-job training has intensified in recent weeks for McAlister and Starks, a second-year player who is dealing with a sophomore slump. After beginning the season as a starter opposite fourth-year cornerback DeRon Jenkins, Starks, having been victimized too often in the passing game, was benched in favor of McAlister.

Starks is now the team's third cornerback in the nickel defense package. Eventually, he figures to join McAlister to form a starting tandem. Both players were selected 10th overall in the draft.

Starks has struggled with zone coverage responsibilities, as in the team's 17-10 victory over Cleveland last month. He mistakenly allowed wide-out Kevin Johnson an outside route, resulting in a touchdown that made the game close. Starks then looked tentative the following week in Atlanta, as he gave up numerous first-down completions in man-to-man coverage while playing well off the line of scrimmage.

"Basically, the whole idea behind becoming one of the best corners in the league is you've got to learn something new each week, each day," Starks said. "I have to take this day by day and work hard to improve my game. That means extra film study, doing whatever it takes to become a better player.

"I'm a little frustrated because I'm not playing up to my potential right now. I've had some opportunities to make some plays, and I haven't made them."

Starks has had his confidence shaken repeatedly since getting off to a memorable start as a rookie. During his first month in 1998, Starks saved a touchdown by forcing a fumble, made two spectacular interceptions and sparked a punt return for a touchdown with an excellent block.

After stepping in as a starter at midseason, Starks suffered through his initiation, as opposing quarterbacks picked on him relentlessly, five times for scores. Starks, 24, came to training camp this year five pounds heavier with a little more bulk on his 170-pound frame and was penciled in as a starter.

"It's still early, and maybe this is a growing period [Starks] has to go through," said defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "It's a matter of maturity. Sometimes they're listening but they're not hearing you.

"He learned a good lesson from that mistake he made [against the Browns]. Duane can't worry about what people say. He's just got to play. He's going to get another opportunity."

The spotlight just got a little brighter on McAlister, 22, who also kicked off his rookie year with a splash. Against the St. Louis Rams in the season opener, he made a marvelous, one-handed interception and nearly returned it for a score. He later added his team-leading second interception, and his coverage ability often stood out in the team's nickel defense.

McAlister replaced Starks to start the second half in Atlanta 10 days ago. He then finished the game with a man-to-man clinic by forcing two incompletions during the Falcons' lone possession in overtime. Atlanta punted, and the Ravens won the game seconds later.

A week later, O'Donnell brought McAlister back to earth.

"We're looking for a more consistent level of technique and attention to detail, but [McAlister] hasn't done anything to cause us to doubt his ability," Lewis said. "He has great confidence. He'll come back and keep fighting. He just gets better and keeps understanding more."

"If Chris McAlister learns not to peek in at the quarterback in that coverage, then the touchdown he gave up will be worth the price," head coach Brian Billick said. "I believe in this guy."

NOTES: The Ravens signed former Minnesota tight end Ryan Collins to their practice roster yesterday, and made room for Collins by releasing defensive end Larry Fitzpatrick. Collins, 6 feet 6, 259 pounds, spent last season on the Vikings' practice squad. He was on Cleveland's 53-man roster for the first three games of this season, but did not play. The Ravens' game against visiting Tennessee on Dec. 5 is sold out, giving the team sellouts in their first six home games. About 600 tickets remain for the Dec. 19 game against New Orleans, while 3,000 are left for the home finale against Cincinnati on Dec. 26. Billick hinted that the team probably would not carry two kickers, Matt Stover and Joe Nedney, on their roster beyond the end of this month. Nedney was signed last week to handle kickoffs, leaving Stover to concentrate on place-kicking, but injuries forced Billick to deactivate Nedney for the Tennessee game. "If we find during this bye period that [Nedney] is not what we hoped he'd be, then Matt will continue to do both," he said. "I don't know if Nedney is the answer, but we've got a little time to find that out."

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