McAlister not a lock for Sunday

OWINGS MILLS -- After being exploited by the Pittsburgh Steelers due to a shorthanded secondary, the Baltimore Ravens could be in a similar predicament Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister remains a question mark because of a strained knee that has kept him out of the past two games.

McAlister has been practicing on a limited basis without setbacks while not wearing a helmet and being held out of full-team drills, but acknowledged Thursday that he's far from a lock to return for this AFC North game at M&T Bank Stadium.

When asked if he thought he could play against Bengals wide receivers Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry despite not competing fully in practice so far this week, McAlister replied: "I've been playing against these guys for going on nine years. I know the game plan, I understand the defense. Even with limited practice, I don't think it will bother me out on the field."

Whether the knee can hold up is another point altogether.

McAlister, whose knee injury has been described as a Grade II posterior cruciate ligament strain, has to contend with the possibility that he could aggravate the injury while shedding the rust from a three-week convalescence.

McAlister admitted that watching his teammates get toasted for five touchdown passes during Monday night's 38-7 loss is a big motivating factor, along with the fact that starting cornerback Samari Rolle has been ruled out with an undisclosed illness that could keep him out indefinitely.

"By the same token, I have to be smart about my situation," McAlister said.

If McAlister is out again, then Baltimore will start Corey Ivy and Derrick Martin for the second week in a row.

That grouping could be problematic.

"On defense, we have to hold up our end of the bargain," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "No matter if it's a long field, short field, whatever, we can't give up scores. We can't play that way. Obviously, we've got to play a lot better.

"I was proud of the way that we finished that game. There is plenty of fight in this group. That's encouraging. That's why I think as we move forward into the second half of the season, you're going to see the closeness of this football team affect the win-loss total. We expect to make a great run at it."

Ryan said that he's preparing as if Martin and Ivy will be on the field again.

In particular, Martin needs to improve after being picked on repeatedly by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

When asked if the coaches will try to build the youngster's confidence after he struggled during his first NFL start by emphasizing any positives, Ryan said: "Quite honestly, we think of the things he did poorly and things he's got to improve on. When you play with your eyes and you don't play with proper leverage, you get beat.

"He's got a short memory. That's a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that he'll line up and compete again, but he's got to learn from his mistakes and I think he'll make a better account of himself this week."

Added McAlister: "Everybody gets beat. My first game in the league was against Yancey Thigpen and it was out and up, six points. That's a tough situation to get welcomed into the NFL. It's a tough game to play out there on that island."

Meanwhile, reserve cornerback David Pittman didn't practice due to a concussion and could be out Sunday.

If he's unavailable, then Ronnie Prude would fill in at nickel back.

"Ronnie has played against Houshmandzadeh before," Ryan said. "That was a good battle. Obviously, Houshmandzadeh is the top slot receiver in football. It will be a challenge, no question."

INJURY UPDATE: Tight end Todd Heap was limited in practice with a strained hamstring, but expressed confidence that he will return for the first time since aggravating the injury against the St. Louis Rams.

"Right now, I feel like I'm going to play," Heap said. "I'm hoping for no setbacks. I wouldn't say it's 100 percent right now.

"The thing that I have to look at and be smart with is I want to come back for the whole season. I didn't want to come back and risk anything. I have to make sure my leg is where it needs to be."

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (knee) didn't practice for the second consecutive day.

"The fact that he wasn't out there is always a concern," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

Billick said that Rolle and tight end Daniel Wilcox (sprained toe, didn't practice) are approaching the time where they might need to be placed on injured reserve to free up roster spots.

"That certainly has to factor in, but we're not at that point yet," Billick said. "We're probably closing in on it."

Safety Ed Reed (head, neck) returned to practice on a limited basis. He is still dealing with sensitivity to light after being banged-up by Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward.

If return specialist Yamon Figurs is unable to play due to a knee sprain, then Cory Ross would likely return punts with running back Musa Smith filling in again on kickoffs.

"I'm always ready," Ross said. "Just tell me what you need me to do."

Added Billick: "He's a good solid return guy for us. He's been there for us, so we have real confidence in him."

Johnson didn't practice in Cincinnati on Thursday, one day after being limited in practice. Houshmandzadeh practiced despite a knee injury. Defensive tackle John Thornton was out with a neck injury.

ROSTER MOVES: As expected, linebackers Dan Cody (knee surgery) and Mike Smith (shoulder surgery) have been officially placed on injured reserve after they were unable to return to practice nine weeks after being placed on the physically unable to perform list.

QUICK HITS: Former Ravens linebacker James Harrison was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after recording nine tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, an interception, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery Monday night for the Steelers. ... The Ravens are planning a Veteran's Day tribute that will feature a video broadcast of Maryland National Guard troops stationed in Iraq. There will also be a special fly-over. ... Ravens senior vice president for business ventures Dennis Mannion left the front office to become the Los Angeles Dodgers' chief operating officer.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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