By Joe Platania, PressBox Staff
A cornerback's job is to cover, but sometimes they get uncovered themselves.
Chris McAlister used to run home from church on Sundays to watch two of his favorite football players on television.
No doubt McAlister -- an option-oriented high school quarterback in Pasadena, Calif. -- saw his future was in breaking up passes, not throwing them.
"They were two of my favorite players," McAlister told the NFL Network regarding his future teammates.
Samari Rolle, his wife and several other NFL players were flying back from a safari trip earlier this year when the door to their small private plane blew open in mid-air, just minutes before landing.
Even in the presence of loved ones, Rolle had never felt so helpless, out on that proverbial island with no one to help.
"They told us to stay calm," Rolle said. "Once we landed, I was just thankful for the opportunity. God kept us here for a reason."
McAlister and Rolle have lived the cornerback's life, on and off the field. Together, they make up one of the NFL's most experienced tandems at the position; they will have a combined 19 years in the league when the 2007 season begins.
That fact hasn't gone unnoticed.
Lindy's, the only preseason magazine that is picking Baltimore to win Super Bowl XLII, says McAlister -- a three-time Pro Bowl pick -- is still one of the 10 best corners in the league, and Rolle is primed for a "comeback" 2007 campaign.
The latter moniker is there for a painfully obvious reason.
Rolle's stellar reputation, built over eight seasons with the Tennessee Titans -- one that included nine postseason starts, a Super Bowl appearance and the Pro Bowl in 2000 -- was stripped away early last season as opposing passing games found a comfort level on his side of the field.
The Ravens' base defense usually keeps Rolle on the right side, ostensibly to cover the other team's "X" (split end) receiver.
At 6 feet and 175 pounds, Rolle is roughly 30 pounds lighter and an inch shorter than McAlister, whose size is needed to cover the "Z" (flanker) position on the left.
However, with wideouts switching sides seemingly at will, the Ravens' pass defense suffered through September and early October, most notably through a two-game losing streak before the bye that left the team at 4-2 and wondering about the future of its usually-vaunted defense.
In a Monday-night loss in Denver, Javon Walker and Rod Smith had combined for nine catches and a touchdown. The following week against Carolina, Steve Smith had an eight-catch, 189-yard day that included a game-breaking 72-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
But Rolle took all the criticism stoically.
"He is a man, a great teammate and a great football player," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "Everybody in this organization knows that, so we just have to do our thing.
"We have to show up, Samari included, and we expect to dominate this league and put ourselves right back in position to do some damage."
That's exactly what Rolle did as the season wore on.
As the secondary's play became more structured and freelance tendencies diminished, the Ravens' pass defense rose eventually to finish sixth in the league, allowing an average of just over 188 passing yards per game.
Not only that, but of the 35 pass plays of 25 or more yards the Ravens allowed in 2007, only six of them came during the season's final month. That helped Baltimore finish first in total defense for the first time in team history.
"The main thing is just trusting myself and my ability," Rolle said. "I'm not depending on somebody to be there or guessing. I know I can play.
"I hear people say I'm slowing down or this or that. Ty Law is older than me, Ronde Barber is older than me. Those guys are still effective."
There's a reason McAlister wears No. 21.
It's not just because of his infatuation with Sanders or his style of play. It's because of the results that came along with the bravado.
McAlister earned his third Pro Bowl honor in the last four years by leading the team in interceptions with six, returning two for touchdowns. The Ravens picked off a league-high 28 passes in 2007, a performance that helped the team pace the NFL with a plus-17 turnover ratio.
Part of that was due to the Ravens' best-ever pass-rushing season; Baltimore notched a franchise-record 60 sacks last year. But even so, McAlister was targeted by opposing quarterbacks a staggering 97 times last year, second in the NFL to Dallas' Anthony Henry (100).
By comparison, Rolle was thrown at 83 times, 14th in the league. The combined 180 bombs dropped on the Ravens' corners were second in the league only to Minnesota. According to McAlister, that's where experience comes in.
"It's a good feeling, knowing that the people out here have the experience and know what this means in getting ready for the season," McAlister said. "[We can work on] communication and just knowing where everybody's going to be."
For most of his career, McAlister has known where the guy in the different-colored jersey has been.
During one memorable stretch in 2003, McAlister practically shut down and shut out some of the game's best receivers, holding Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, Torry Holt and eventual teammate Derrick Mason to a combined 11 catches.
Earlier that season, McAlister had been suspended for one game for leaving the team prior to a September contest in San Diego, a game the Ravens won, 24-10. But with the birth of his first child, a newfound maturity took over.
The Arizona grad is now a leader on defense on a unit full of them. In order to motivate himself and his teammates to stop dropping interceptions -- a team-wide plague in 2004 and 2005 -- McAlister often drops to the ground and does push-ups after dropping a practice pickoff.
"It's back. I've done them already," McAlister said. "I dropped a ball. I think we might increase the amount of pushups that we have to do so we don't drop any picks this year."
THE CHALLENGE CONTINUES
The Ravens will play a schedule that is tied for 11th toughest in the league this year. That's not only because they will face fellow division winners Seattle, San Diego, Indianapolis and New England, but because of the stellar opposing wideouts that dot the landscape.
In the season's first half alone, McAlister and Rolle will have to deal with Cleveland's Braylon Edwards, who beat Rolle for a 58-yard score last September, the dangerous Arizona tandem of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, St. Louis' Holt, Cincinnati's omnipresent Chad Johnson and Buffalo's Lee Evans, who got loose for catches of 52 and 44 yards in Baltimore in the regular-season finale last year, the latter for a touchdown.
Later in the campaign, Seattle’s Darrell Jackson, New England's Randy Moss and Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison will line up opposite the Ravens.
As good as McAlister and Rolle are and have been, they're going to need help against such talent. That's where veterans such as nickelback Corey Ivy and fast-developing youngsters like Derrick Martin, Ronnie Prude, Evan Oglesby and David Pittman will prove crucial.
"I like the depth of our secondary,” coach Brian Billick said. “I liked it last year with those young guys. I think it’s done nothing but get stronger.
“I really like not only the the caliber of our secondary, but we’ve got unusual depth that other teams don’t have.”
It is a depth not only of talent, but of passion. Going into his third year as a Raven, Rolle is already aware of this.
“First, there’s the history,” he said. “When you become part of it, you have to live up to that. Then, there’s the way we meet. We go to a lot more meetings together, so we know what everyone is doing and why we’re doing those things. That keeps accountability every day and keeps the learning at a high level. We then add that intensity and physicality that is a tradition here.”
It’s something McAlister, Rolle and the rest of the Ravens will always have covered -- even if sometimes, they get uncovered.
Issue 2.27: July 5, 2007