BALTIMORE (AP) – The Baltimore Ravens have composed a defensive backfield that’s so good, two former Pro Bowl stars can’t even crack the starting lineup.

“It could be the best secondary ever assembled,” declared Deion Sanders, who will be used as nickel back this season despite his 14 years of NFL experience and eight Pro Bowl appearances.

Sanders and fellow reserve Dale Carter, a four-time Pro Bowler, will see plenty of action tonight when the retooled Ravens defense faces record-setting quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Marvin Harrison and the high-powered offense of the Indianapolis Colts.

Manning set an NFL record last season by throwing 49 touchdown passes, including 15 to Harrison. The duo hooked up for a score in a 20-10 victory over Baltimore last year, Manning’s only touchdown pass of the game.

Manning will face an even better secondary today. During the offseason, the Ravens signed former Tennessee Titans cornerback Samari Rolle, who replaces Gary Baxter and joins Chris McAlister and safeties Ed Reed and Will Demps on the starting unit. Carter, who missed last season with a blood clot in his lungs, adds additional depth.

“On paper, this defense surpasses any secondary that I’ve ever seen and any other secondary that exists today,” McAlister said. “They’re supposed to be the most prolific offense ever put together, and we’re supposed to be one of the most dangerous defenses ever put together. So we’ll find out what happens Sunday night.”

Asked whether this is the toughest defensive backfield he’s ever faced, Manning quickly replied, “No question. Tons of talent over there, lots of experience as well.

“We know Samari very well, faced him a number of times in the division, and know the ability that he has. Chris McAlister is one of the top cover corners in the league, we all know what Deion can do, and Ed Reed was the defensive MVP last year. That kind of speaks for itself. Demps is an excellent player, too.”

Smart, too. Baltimore’s defense has for years been a cocky, confident bunch, but the Ravens wisely refrained from trash-talking before facing Manning, who earned a second consecutive NFL MVP award after leading the Colts to a 12-4 record in 2004.

“You’re dealing with one of the most prolific passers in all of the National Football League for the last 10, 15 years,” Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis said. “Understanding that, you have to respect what he can do in this game.”

On the surface, the matchup is Manning vs. the Ravens secondary. But there will also be a duel between Manning, who calls the majority of the plays at the line, and Lewis, the leader of the Baltimore defense.

The one who outguesses the other will probably emerge as the winner.

“It’s like chess,” Lewis said. “Peyton comes to line and he checks to a pass or a run, and I come to the line and I check from a blitz to a zone. It’s great for the fans to see, but it’s more stressful when you’re on the field because you’re trying to figure out their next move. That’s going to be a big challenge for us.”

If Manning and Harrison hook up for 129 yards passing, they will surpass the former Buffalo Bills combination of Jim Kelly and Andre Reed as the NFL’s all-time leading duo in yards passing. Manning and Harrison have already accounted for 9,410 yards and hold the NFL record for most completions between a quarterback and receiver (702).

But Harrison is only one of Manning’s many targets. Reggie Wayne and former Raven Brandon Stokley are dangerous receivers, as is running back Edgerrin James.

“They all bring something different to the table,” Rolle said. “Marvin gets all the credit, and rightfully so, but Stokley and Wayne are great players and Edgerrin is the one that keeps it all together.”

If Indianapolis can give Manning time to throw, then Baltimore’s formidable secondary will be severely tested.

“We need to make sure we know who to block,” Colts center Jeff Saturday said. “I’m sure they’re going to be one of the better defenses we play all year. So I’m excited. A big AFC game at their place, nationally televised. … No excuses.”

AP-ES-09-08-05 1738EDT

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