McAlister is key to locking up receivers

The Baltimore Sun

At the beginning of the season, the one player the Ravens could ill afford to lose was quarterback Steve McNair.

Now, near the midseason point, it has to be cornerback Chris McAlister. Going in to Monday night's game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, it is questionable whether McAlister will play.

If he does, you have to wonder how much he can give on an injured right knee that he severely strained earlier in the season.

Even without McNair and other injured starters such as offensive linemen Mike Flynn, Jonathan Ogden and Adam Terry, tight end Todd Heap and defensive end Trevor Pryce this season, the Ravens have been competitive.

But without McAlister, the Ravens are extremely vulnerable to big pass plays. As the shutdown cornerback, McAlister is responsible for playing against the other team's top receiver.

Maybe he occasionally gave up a big play, but McAlister has been pretty consistent the past three seasons. If he can't play, veteran Samari Rolle would replace McAlister as the shutdown corner.

Rolle has played better this season compared with last and has been solid in his past two games, but he doesn't have the same physical skills McAlister has.

And if Rolle matches up with Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward, that leaves the Steelers' Santonio Holmes against Ravens cornerback Corey Ivy.

Uh-oh. That's not a good matchup for the Ravens. Holmes can fly. He leads the Steelers in receptions with 26 for 426 yards and four touchdowns.

In other words, McAlister needs to heal fast.

Wrong move

The Ravens' decision to waive quarterback Derek Anderson two years ago might come back to haunt them even more.

After being drafted in the sixth round by the Ravens in 2005, Anderson was having an impressive training camp. The Ravens, though, still waived him. Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, a big Anderson fan when he was the Ravens' director of player personnel, claimed Anderson off waivers.

Now, Anderson seems to have Cleveland on the upswing.

Meanwhile, Baltimore is the only team in the AFC North without a quarterback of the future. McNair's best days are behind him, and backup Kyle Boller is just that: a backup. The Ravens have rookie Troy Smith on the roster, but he is considered a project.

Also, with the Ravens' record of drafting or signing free-agent quarterbacks, they might have to invest in another one in April for insurance.

"It's shaping up to be a very good group," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of the incoming quarterback class. "There is one blue-chip quarterback who has separated himself from everyone else. He is the No. 1 consensus, the guy few can poke holes in.

"There is also a second-tier group that has to be evaluated, but they can become starters in the NFL."

The No. 1 guy is Boston College's Matt Ryan, followed by Kentucky's Andre Woodson or Louisville's Brian Brohm. Rounding out the top five are Tennessee's Erik Ainge and Delaware's Joe Flacco.

And just think, the Ravens had Anderson on the cheap as a sixth-round pick. Now, they might have to invest a lot of money and time to take a quarterback in the first round.

Grubbs fitting in

As expected, rookie Ben Grubbs has become the Ravens' starting right guard and could hold that spot for a long time.

Grubbs, the team's top pick this year out of Auburn, has held his own this season. He has power, quick feet and is technically sound. The Ravens haven't had a young guard this good since 1996, when Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Ogden was a rookie and started at left guard.

"He has done a very good job in the transition from college football to the NFL, from the left side to the right side," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said of Grubbs. "He has shown athleticism and gained an understanding of our schemes."

Pryce's impact

I'm eager to see what Pryce's return to the lineup does for the Ravens' pass rush. Some players have been using that as an excuse for the Ravens not getting to quarterbacks this season as often as last.

They say that without Pryce, opposing teams have been able to double outside linebackers Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs. But with Pryce back, teams will have to decide how to also handle him in the middle.

It does make sense. It's also a great excuse. We'll see Monday night.

Hauling them in

Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason is tied for second in the NFL in receptions with 56 and is on pace for 128 catches. Mason also has a league-best 20 catches on third down this year, with 13 earning first downs.

Mason has caught the eye of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

"Derrick Mason is the No. 1 third-down guy in football," he said, "so we have to be prepared to deal with him in third-down football to get ourselves off the field."

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