Ravens' corners will be tested


It's time for Chris McAlister and Duane Starks to do some defending.

The Ravens' young cornerbacks have talked all summer about how they've improved and matured. Now, they'll be tested ... and tested by the best.

McAlister and Starks will line up Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars' Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, the NFL's premier receiving combination the past four years who have celebrated some of their biggest days against the Ravens.

For the Ravens' defenders, they either have to shut down or shut up.

"Every week, we have to back up what it is you said prior to this date," McAlister said. "All the Pro Bowl hype, well, we're going against Pro Bowl receivers. Only time will tell. Sunday we'll get out there and figure out if all the talk on our end is what it's made out to be."

While the Ravens see winning this matchup as a challenge, the Jaguars see winning it as a necessity.

Jacksonville's top two running backs, Fred Taylor and Stacey Mack, each has a 50 percent chance of playing because of injuries. So, the Jaguars may have the easy decision of choosing between handing the ball off to special teamer Chris Howard or throwing to two of the league's top receivers.

Since the Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in more than a year, they realize where Jacksonville will be pinpointing its attack.

"I already know they have to put the ball in the air to beat us," said McAlister, who is in his second year after leading the Ravens last season with 27 passes defensed. "Any team that we face is going to have to beat us in the air. They'll put the ball up 40 to 50 times this game. We're looking forward to Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. They're going to get a lot of air time out there."

The Jaguars, though, have stuck to the idea of maintaining balance in their play-calling. Still, they also know where they've prospered.

In eight games against the Ravens, Smith has 44 catches for 779 yards and five touchdowns, and McCardell has 47 receptions for 581 yards and one touchdown.

"The Ravens are an outstanding football team, and we have an outstanding group of receivers," Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin said. "If given the opportunity to throw, [Jacksonville quarterback] Mark Brunell has done a superb job this year. Over the years, it certainly has been a factor in our game."

Said Ravens coach Brian Billick: "They have terrorized our back end a little bit. So, clearly it's a challenge. But we're better in the secondary. They're going to make some plays, but I think our secondary is up to the challenge to keep that productivity at a minimum."

In their previous meeting on Nov. 28, Smith and McCardell took advantage of the Ravens' cornerbacks playing 7 to 9 yards off the line of scrimmage to combine for 18 catches, 234 yards and two touchdowns.

The Ravens gave up six receptions of more than 20 yards. The Ravens only stopped Jacksonville on nine of 18 third downs.

In clutch situations, the Ravens flinched.

"I'm quite sure that receivers such as themselves, they're going to catch the ball here and there," said Starks, a three-year veteran who has 10 career interceptions. "The big thing is if we show up when it counts, that will prove that we are what we say we are."

Starks and McAlister, the Ravens' first-round draft picks in 1998 and '99, started together for only the second time in their careers last Sunday at Pittsburgh, leaving with solid results.

The Steelers' Kent Graham threw six times at Starks' side and didn't complete a pass. Twice in the second half, Graham threw a jump ball for 6-foot-5 receiver Plaxico Burress and each time the 5-10 Starks got a hand on it.

McAlister didn't see as much action. The Steelers threw a couple quick outs on his side early, yet were unsuccessful when they tried to beat McAlister on a fade route in the end zone by Burress.

However, McAlister probably won't be bored Sunday since the Jaguars won't be adjusting their passing game around him.

"I'm excited because I know the ball is going to be coming at me a lot more," McAlister said. "With Keenan and Jimmy Smith on me, how can you not have faith to go to your go-to guys? Regardless of who's covering them, Jacksonville is a confident team. And they're going to do what they like to do. They're not going to try and let us dictate what they do."

It still comes down to the Jaguars wanting to establish a passing game and the Ravens wanting to establish themselves.

It'll be a day when McAlister and Starks have to back up their confidence, improvement and maturity. It'll be a game when they ultimately have to defend their hype as tough as the Jaguars' receivers.

"Are there any better core of receivers for myself and Chris McAlister to compete against to prove ourselves?" Starks said. "I'm looking forward to this challenge."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars

Site: PSINet Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

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