-- When it came to thinking up the perfect incentive for his young Baltimore Ravens going into the second half of the season, Coach Brian Billick was reminded of a sign he saw years ago in an automobile dealership: "Sell cars or you're fired."

"A number of players need to understand: 'You need to continue to develop so that in the offseason I don't decide I need to go get somebody else at your position,' " Billick said. "But I continue to be impressed that this young group does not panic. . . . This group prepares very well. The focus and enthusiasm has been excellent."

The rebuilding process has produced a 3-5 record, with three of the losses on the road and by three, two and three points. The second-half schedule seems easier, starting Sunday at home with the first of two games against the Cincinnati Bengals and a road game against the expansion Houston Texans.

A Baltimore defense that has been mostly competitive without two injured standouts, linebacker Ray Lewis (shoulder) and end Michael McCrary (knee) for the last four and two games, respectively, may be even more undermanned this week.

Cornerback Chris McAlister severely sprained his left ankle during Sunday's 20-17 loss to the Falcons in Atlanta and, if he had to make a judgment today, trainer Bill Tessendorf said, McAlister would be doubtful "but I've seen nasty [sprains] come back pretty well." The problem for McAlister is that cutting and changing direction are especially important at his position.

If McAlister, Lewis and McCrary are out, the defense will be down to outside linebacker Peter Boulware as the only player with anything approaching significant playing time in the NFL before the season. Alvin Porter, who replaced McAlister early in the fourth quarter, played in all 16 games as a backup last year after signing as a rookie free agent.

Against the Falcons, the defense allowed just one touchdown and held quarterback Michael Vick to minus-five yards on the ground and 136 yards passing. The other Falcons touchdown came when defensive end Patrick Kerney scooped up a fumble by quarterback Jeff Blake, starting for the second straight week for injured Chris Redman, and took it into the end zone from four yards.

Linebacker Bernardo Harris, Lewis's replacement, had an interception Sunday, the first Vick had thrown this season. Linebacker Edgerton Hartwell, who has assumed many of Lewis's leadership roles, had eight solo tackles. Ends Adalius Thomas and rookie Anthony Weaver and linebacker Cornell Brown each had a sack.

Tessendorf said that Lewis and Redman (back) would be considered "very doubtful" for Sunday and that a decision about surgery for Lewis probably would be put off for at least another week. He referred reporters to McCrary for his availability against the Bengals, and McCrary said, "I really don't know."

Redman said he still is experiencing "a little numbness" in his leg and, according to Tessendorf, must go through a full week of workouts before any consideration is given to playing. Billick said Redman being able to practice even enough to be the third quarterback Sunday was "probably a little ambitious."

Wide receiver Travis Taylor has had the sort of games with Blake as quarterback that the Ravens envisioned when they chose him with the 10th pick in the 2000 NFL draft. His two-game production: 11 catches for 209 yards and a touchdown and a 39-yard run on an end-around.

Even though Blake was sacked six times Sunday, Billick said the offensive line played "very, very well." He said Blake probably should have thrown the ball away on a couple of sacks and blamed tailback Jamal Lewis on some others.

Billick said he mostly praised the team during a meeting today but was angry about up to a dozen plays against the Falcons.

"Our challenge for the second half is to take the lessons we've learned and turn those [close losses] into three-point wins," Billick said. "This group is capable of that."