POSITION OF STRENGTH

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a team that places a premium on versatility - especially on defense - Jameel McClain is usually the perfect man for an imperfect time.

If the Ravens need a strong-side linebacker in a pinch, McClain's their guy. Same at middle linebacker. Or weak-side backer. Or even defensive end.

In 26 regular-season games, the second-year super sub has played them all. On Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, McClain made his first NFL start at Jarret Johnson's strong-side spot. It was a key component in a scheme designed to replace injured Terrell Suggs. Johnson moved to Suggs' rush linebacker position, and the Ravens rotated four linemen up front to keep Peyton Manning guessing at personnel.

Although the Colts won the game, the Ravens' new-look defense made its mark. It held Manning's prolific offense to three points and 129 total yards in the second half, including only one third-down conversion. The Ravens kept Manning from finding his rhythm after an opening-series touchdown.

McClain did his part with a career-high five tackles, plus one on special teams.

"Jameel did, I thought, very well," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "We felt that was the best for our team [to move him to Johnson's spot]. He is one of those Ravens that just keeps getting reps and keeps improving as he's out there getting the repetitions."

McClain was responsible for both pass coverage and setting the edge to the defense. But he has performed well wherever he has played.

A year ago, then-coordinator Rex Ryan used McClain more off the edge as a rusher. He responded with 2.5 sacks and two safeties - not bad for the only rookie free agent to make the team's 53-man roster. This year, he has contributed in a variety of roles.

"To play on this defense, you have to know more than one position," McClain said. "It's that simple. Because you've got to know what the person next to you is doing, and then you've got to know what the person on the other side [of him] is doing, just in case you might have to go there."

It's a circumstance McClain is familiar with. He played all over Syracuse's defense for four years, and before that, all over George Washington High School's in Philadelphia. The more positions you ask him to play, the better he seems to handle it all.

At 6 feet 1 and 250 pounds, McClain has the intelligence to handle the heavy load of job assignments and the physical skill to execute them. A hybrid end-linebacker out of Syracuse, he was the Ravens' top free-agent priority after the 2008 draft.

"The opportunity this year compared to last year is different, just because I'm filling in on different roles," he said. "Last year, I would get a chance to do more rushing. This year, I'm focusing on the inside, sometimes on the outside. It's a bigger view of the defense this year."

McClain, 24 and a graduate of Syracuse, said he has gotten so used to playing multiple positions that playing "one position might not be a comfort zone."

Neither does he worry about finding his own spot on the defense. He's content with his role: "At the end of the day, it's about winning and what you can do to help your team."

Because Suggs is not expected to play against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday night's AFC North showdown, it is possible McClain will get his second start. Mattison said the bottom line is on putting the best players on the field.

"The good news is these guys have done a really, really good job of staying focused on all the positions," Mattison said. "If you're a tackle like Trevor Pryce, he could go to the end position [which he did Sunday] and pick that up right away because he's stayed focused."

NOTES: : Suggs (knee) is listed as doubtful for the game but will try to run before a final decision is made Sunday. Linebacker Ray Lewis (foot) and safety Ed Reed (illness, foot) are questionable. Reed did not practice on Friday; Lewis and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (ankle) were limited. Ngata is expected to play, as is tight end Todd Heap (ribs). ... Whether newly signed fullback Charles Ali is activated this week or not, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound fullback has been working hard to absorb the playbook and the vocabulary. "They made it clear that they want me to come in and hit the ground running," Ali said. "It's a six-week season now, and every day, I'm just trying to be physical and stand out." ... In the past two games, Derrick Mason and Ray Rice have been targeted on 33 of Joe Flacco's 53 passes, compared with Kelley Washington (three intended passes) and Mark Clayton (four). Getting more receivers involved will be a priority against Pittsburgh. "As you know, that's what we always want to do," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "We've got to get back to doing that like we did earlier in the year, as early as a month ago. We'll do everything we can do to do that. It's easier said than done. Defenses can force you to push things a certain way." One of those things, Cameron said, was for the Colts to single-cover Mason, inviting 16 passes from Flacco.

Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.

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