McAlister faces stern test against Chad Johnson

OWINGS MILLS - This dispute between an imposing cornerback and a loquacious wide receiver will be settled during a series of fade routes, slants and post patterns.

Baltimore Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister intends to roughly jam Cincinnati Bengals standout Chad Johnson at the line of scrimmage Sunday in a football game that will go a long way toward determining who will claim the AFC North title.

Yet, the ultra-productive Johnson believes he can't be stopped. Not even by Deion Sanders, whom Johnson said he tried to urge out of retirement for a sterner test.

"I'm not coverable," said Johnson, who is receiver Keyshawn Johnson's cousin. "Regardless of what you put in front of me, I am going to do what I do. Chris brings the best out of me, man. I love going against defensive backs of his caliber."

And if Johnson escapes his grasp, then McAlister plans to swivel his hips like James Brown and sprint with the Bengals' top downfield target. Gary Baxter will start at cornerback opposite McAlister as Corey Fuller will operate as the nickel back. Baxter will take a similar approach to checking Peter Warrick as Baltimore (7-5) tries to derail a burgeoning passing game headlined by Johnson.

"We're hungry," said McAlister, who shut down San Francisco 49ers All-Pro Terrell Owens last week. "It's more than just football to us. We're trying to prove how good we are.

"I'm not worried about matching up with Johnson. I didn't match up with him last time."

When Baltimore played Cincinnati (7-5) in mid-October, the Bengals entered the game with a 1-4 mark.

Between rookie quarterback Kyle Boller's three turnovers and a Jon Kitna pass deflecting off safety Ed Reed's shoulder pads for Johnson's 82-yard touchdown, the Ravens took a 34-26 loss. Johnson had five catches for 130 yards. He's on pace for 1,473 yards and 95 receptions after posting 71 catches, nine scores and an AFC-best 1,105 yards.

This game should test the defensive backs' penchant for press coverage.

"We've been a real physical team outside," McAlister said. "With Gary Baxter and myself, we've got two of the bigger corners in the league to play press coverage and that benefits us.

"I've always had confidence, never lacked it when it comes to playing football. It's just something that I've been blessed to do." Historically, though, Johnson has backed up his words against Baltimore. In five games, he has 19 receptions for 346 yards and three touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 206-pound McAlister may be uniquely qualified, though, to turn and burn with him.

"Chris has got great change of direction, the kind of size and speed you look for, but he also has the instincts," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "He knows when to take a chance. Thinking back to the draft and what we look for in a corner, there are 10 qualities you like to have and Chris probably has eight or nine of those qualities."

The Ravens have won nine of the last 11 games in this series. The Bengals were 2-14 last season before experiencing a renaissance under former Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. They haven't won a game, though, in Baltimore since the Ravens played at Memorial Stadium. "You are not going to come in here and disrespect us," Baxter said. "You aren't going to come into our house and push us around. Whenever you play us, you are going to get beat up, period.

"Marvin Lewis has them playing with confidence. They are going to be confident and arrogant. We can't wait for them to come into M&T Bank Stadium."

Kitna is the AFC Offensive Player of the Month, completing 100-of-166 passes in November for 1,147 yards, 11 scores and three interceptions for a 95.6 passer rating.

Kitna has thrown eight touchdowns in five games against the Ravens, but also has tossed seven interceptions.

"I think about him the same way as I've thought about him in the past," McAlister said. "They've always had the stats. They had an awful record last year and [Johnson] still had over 1,000 yards receiving, so what's the difference? They're just winning games now."

Kitna ranks second in the league with 22 touchdowns and has tossed 114 passes in a row without an interception, a span covering 14 quarters.

"He's playing at an elite level right now," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. Meanwhile, McAlister seems to be learning how to do his job better, too.

Playing under a one-year franchise tender of $5.962 million, the average of the top five cornerback salaries, McAlister has stymied Owens (three receptions, 23 yards) along with the St. Louis Rams' Torry Holt (three catches, 38 yards), Denver's Rod Smith and Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith.

"Chris is playing the way we anticipated," Newsome said. "He's better and more consistent each week. That just leads us to believe he's going to be a Pro Bowl cornerback who can help our defense for a lot of years."

McAlister is slated to become an unrestricted free agent unless Baltimore franchises him again. That's an unlikely scenario because it would entail a 20-percent pay increase.

McAlister said he's certain he'll be back in Baltimore next year with a new contract.

"Once the season is over and the smoke clears, we will start to engage in conversation with his agent, Mitch Frankel, with the hopes of retaining Chris," Newsome said. "We would like to keep him in the building."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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