Ravens' secondary faces stiff challenge

OWINGS MILLS -- Willie Gaston was indoctrinated into the high-pressure world of being an NFL cornerback against flamboyant Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson. Johnson lined up across from the Baltimore Ravens' rookie cornerback earlier this season and caustically remarked that he had never heard of Gaston since his No. 44 wasn't listed in the game program.

He was correct since Gaston had just been added to the roster.

Gaston's response? He just laughed and tried to cover the talkative former All-Pro wideout.

"I'm definitely not afraid to go against any receiver in the league," said Gaston, an undrafted rookie free agent from the University of Houston. "I've been against one of the best in the league already and I'm not going to back down. I'm going to always play hard and aggressive.

"My game is not about talking. It's about showing what I can do. It's good to talk noise every now and then, but I'm not about to get caught up in that."

The Ravens' secondary will need Gaston's business-like approach during Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field.

The Seahawks feature a potent passing game headlined by Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who has passed for 3,620 yards, 25 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions for a 92.0 quarterback rating.

Hasselbeck is intent on distributing the football evenly, although Bobby Engram (85 catches, 1,013 yards, five touchdowns) is his favorite target among a talented receiving corps that also features Deion Branch and Nate Burleson.

The Seahawks have all but scrapped their running game as Shaun Alexander has struggled, averaging 42 rushing yards over the past eight games while wearing a cast over his broken wrist. His 3.3 yards per carry is the lowest of his career, and Seattle ranks 30th in yards per run with a 3.6 average.

And the Seahawks are unlikely to be inclined to or able to run the ball against a stout Baltimore front seven that ranks second in the league in rushing defense, surrendering just 77 yards per contest on the ground.

The Ravens' pass defense is another matter altogether with cornerback Chris McAlister on injured reserve with a knee injury and cornerback Samari Rolle likely sidelined for the third game in a row with a shoulder injury.

Baltimore has dipped to 23rd in the NFL against the pass, allowing 224.8 passing yards per contest.

Gaston started his first NFL game in last week's 22-16 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins and is scheduled to start against Seattle opposite Corey Ivy.

So, the Ravens know what to expect from a pass-first, run-later outfit than ranks eighth in the league.

"I think when you came into the season you would've thought this is going to be one of those teams that is just going to pound that running game at you, but you're exactly right," Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "They have outstanding receivers. For whatever reason, they don't seem to be running the ball as effectively as they've done in the past.

"I don't know where our pass defense is ranked, but it isn't that good obviously. And, you know, they're throwing it all over the place. I think last week we ordered up that 45 mph wind that they played in last week. So, hopefully, that'll greet us there. That'll help us."

The Ravens will need some sort of assistance against Hasselbeck, an intelligent player who has only thrown an interception on two percent of his throws and has completed 62.5 percent overall. Whenever defenses blanket Engram, Hasselbeck can counter by targeting Branch (47 catches, 637 yards and four touchdowns) or Burleson (40 catches, 523 yards and six touchdowns).

Plus, Hasselbeck has perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones watching his back.

"He's smart," Ryan said of Hasselbeck. "He's been in that system for a long time. He can make all the throws, has got a nice, big arm, has got an outstanding offensive line. So, it's going to be a huge challenge for us."

Hasselbeck is also sharp enough not to underestimate the Ravens' defense. Not with the presence of safety Ed Reed, linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott and defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg looming across the line of scrimmage.

"Your matchups are tough," Hasselbeck said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "Ed Reed is probably one of the best players I've seen on film ever. He's very fast, he's got great range. He's out of position probably every play, but he's probably in position. Technically if it was somebody else out there, some rookie, the coach would probably say, 'Hey, you need to get on your landmark,' but because it's Ed Reed and he's a great football player, he's got a lot of leeway that way.

"Not only are they talented, but their effort is huge. It's going to be a physical game. They're not having a really good year necessarily, but they're a really good defense. They present problems for people. People have gotten some big plays on them, but it's kind of a risk-reward situation. If you don't bring your 'A' game, you're going to lose the game."

For Baltimore to pull off the upset and snap an eight-game losing streak, they'll need strong play out of Gaston.

Gaston held up fairly well against the Dolphins even though quarterback Cleo Lemon completed 23 of 39 passes for 315 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

Other than an 18-yard catch surrendered to Marty Booker, Gaston was solid with five tackles and a pass deflection.

"Willie competed well," Ryan said. "Overall, it probably wasn't a great game for us in the back end obviously, but I thought Willie competed. We definitely had some concerns going in there. The guy has never started a game, but it was good to see him get his feet wet.

"He played against Chad Johnson, so he knows no fear. He's going to give everything he's got out there. Hopefully, this week it'll be good enough for us."

Gaston was a long shot to make the roster and was promoted from the practice squad in November due to multiple injuries in the secondary.

So far, he's making the most of his opportunity.

"I feel like I've come a long way," said Gaston, a North Shore, Tex., native. "We have a great coaching staff and they got me to play at the level I'm playing. I have confidence in myself."

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

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