McAlister on top of his game

OWINGS MILLS -- Chris McAlister used to grapple with his maturity as much as opposing receivers. His emotions regularly bubbled with displays of frustration accompanied by penalties and declining production. Just a year ago, the Baltimore Ravens' talented, enigmatic cornerback wasn't selected for the Pro Bowl for the first time in two years.

Quarterbacks weren't paying him the same respect as usual and often targeted his territory. Now, McAlister has engineered a major career resurgence heading into Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium.
McAlister will draw the pivotal assignment of guarding Colts All-Pro wide receiver Marvin Harrison. And he'll do so with the confidence of registering a career-high six interceptions, returning two for touchdowns, along with increased composure.
"It's been a slow process in the making," said McAlister, who was named to this third Pro Bowl last month. "This year has been one where I tried to stay focused every play and don't take any plays off. For me, that's been my challenge and that's what I've worked on a lot."
Six months after acknowledging during training camp that he needed to grow up and make better choices on and off the field, McAlister is reaping the rewards of growing up.
Once prone to penalties, McAlister hasn't been flagged nearly as often for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and has done a better job of disguising it when he interferes with a receiver. After being limited to one interception last season and missing two games with hamstring and toe injuries, McAlister started every game this season and deflected 25 passes.
"Maturity," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Like all of us, you grow up and you mature. The maturity that Chris has shown this year has been substantial."
While McAlister can still accelerate to track down receivers in the open field, he appears to be slowing down off the field.
McAlister, who was arrested in Virginia during training camp in 2003 and charged with driving under the influence with the case subsequently being dropped, was benched in 2003 prior to the San Diego Chargers game for violating curfew and missing practice days before kickoff.
However, he hasn't had an incident over the past couple of years. Prior to his eighth NFL season, McAlister, 29, credited the responsibility of having a young daughter for making him want to adjust his lifestyle.
McAlister was absent in the past for the majority of the offseason because he was eager to return to his native Southern California. This year, he bought a house in the Baltimore area and regularly haunted the Ravens' training complex.
Unlike previous seasons, no contractual disputes or legal issues clouded McAlister's mind. His base salary for this season was $5.5 million, and he's due $6.5 million in 2007 and $8 million per season beginning in 2008 until his contract expires in 2010.
People have noticed the changes in McAlister, who used to describe himself as the black sheep of the Ravens' family.
"You want a Chris McAlister on your team, you want a gunslinger like him who puts it on the line," said former Baltimore Colts defensive back Bruce Laird, who attends every Ravens home game as a member of the NFL uniform police. "He has the ability and the concept within the defense to take the shot when it's given to him and to think outside the box. Chris has really gotten into his mentality where he sees the big picture out there. He has come a long way as far as playing under control."
At 6-foot-1 and 206 pounds, McAlister is one of the more imposing cornerbacks in the league. He excels at bump and run coverage and is known for challenging receivers physically and verbally.
Drafted in the first round in 1999, McAlister has 22 career interceptions and five touchdown returns. The Ravens are counting on him being a major factor against an explosive Colts offense ranked third in the NFL.
"The first thing I remember Ray Lewis saying when I got here was how you have to dominate your opponent," McAlister said. "I think just being physical has been our formula from the beginning."
McAlister has a weighty task ahead of him in trying to contain Harrison, who finished the regular season third in the NFL with 95 receptions for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The angular receiver has parlayed his precise routes into 1,026 career receptions in 11 seasons for 13,697 yards and 122 touchdowns, building a special rapport with Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.
"He's a guy that knows how to get open versus man coverage, versus the zone, and he's a veteran," McAlister said. "He and Peyton seem to be like two guys growing up like they've played ball together all their life. They know where each other is going to be.
"It kind of makes it difficult. When you take something away, Peyton knows he's going to go the other way. You just have to react to it."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

Ravens Insider Top Stories