When Chris McAlister lines up on game days, his assignment is usually the same: Take on one of the biggest and fastest wide receivers in the NFL.
For the past two seasons, the matchups have been different for the Ravens cornerback. He has been battling his injured right knee as much as any top-flight wide-out in the league.
Last year, the injury sidelined him for half the season. This season, McAlister is showing he can still be at the top of his game even when his health isn't, running all over the field whether covering a receiver or chasing down a loose ball.
He proved it in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals' Chad Ocho Cinco, and he will have another chance Sunday against the Cleveland Browns' Braylon Edwards.
"I don't even think about the knee when I am out there on the field," said McAlister, who estimated his knee has improved to "90 to 95 percent." "Any pain that I may or may not have goes away."
Having a playmaker like McAlister on the field is vital to the Ravens' pass defense. With his size (6 feet 1, 210 pounds) and quickness, McAlister can lock down any receiver with little help from the rest of the secondary.
When the Ravens played without him last season, they gave up 227.3 passing yards per game, about 11 more yards than they gave up with him.
The difference was mostly felt on the scoreboard, though. With McAlister, the Ravens allowed 10 passing touchdowns. Without him, they surrendered 17.
"Mac is probably one of the special ones," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Chris is one of those corners that you can put him out there and just say, 'Do what you do and we'll check on you at the end of the game.' "
Facing Edwards on Sunday will be an interesting test for McAlister.
Will he go against the receiver who has as many drops (five) as catches this season? Or will he see the one who caught 11 passes for 182 yards against the Ravens over two games last season?
"I have to stay focused," McAlister said. "Braylon is a great receiver, one of the best deep threats in the league. You have to pay attention to that at all times and not get suckered into some of the short routes he may run or his double move."
It was on one of those routes last season that Edwards beat McAlister for a 78-yard touchdown in Cleveland. When Edwards caught the ball, he had 5 yards on McAlister.
"Any defensive back is going to have a tough matchup against Braylon Edwards," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Chris knows that's a big challenge for him."
Before the season opener, the big challenge for McAlister was making it onto the field.
With a swollen right knee, McAlister was having trouble moving around during practice. But he showed no effects of the injury against Cincinnati, recording four tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. He also helped limit Ocho Cinco to one catch for 22 yards.
"I think Chris McAlister has done a great job of fighting through the injury," Harbaugh said.
McAlister's most telling drive came toward the end of the first half.
He was called for a questionable pass interference on the first play, then flagged for another two plays later.
In the past, McAlister might have let his emotions get the best of him. Instead, on third-and-seven, McAlister tackled tight end Ben Utecht for just a 2-yard gain to end the series.
"Any corner that's worth a darn has got to respond," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "With Chris, he's not a guy that will back down from a challenge. He faced it head-on. He knew he had to right the ship, and he did."
McAlister made his third Pro Bowl in 2006, but he wasn't selected last season because of the injury.
He'll have several chances to stake his claim to another invitation when he is playing the likes of Edwards, Hines Ward, Reggie Wayne and Plaxico Burress this season.
But McAlister said he isn't focused on outside perception.
"I don't play the game to prove myself to anybody other than myself. I play for my teammates," he said. "Accolades don't dictate how you've played.
"Stats don't always get you in the Pro Bowl anyway. Sometimes it's about who is being favored most by the crowd at that time. So do I feel like I have to prove myself to anybody other than myself and my team? No."
A look at the Ravens' all-time interception leaders:
Player Int Yds TDs
Ed Reed 34 880 3
Ray Lewis 25 421 2
Chris McAlister 24 474 5
Duane Starks 20 196 1
Rod Woodson 20 380 5
Sunday, 4:15 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 2 1/2