Ravens' J. Lewis turns corner In his second year, diminutive speedster is big part of offense

October 29, 1997|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

A year ago, Jermaine Lewis was biding his time in the background as a rookie backup receiver learning the finer points of his specialty, the kick return game.

Midway through his second year, regardless of where he is positioned, Lewis is a Ravens highlight waiting to happen.

As an established, starting slot man in the team's three-receiver set, Lewis presents weekly matchup nightmares to defenses. Faced with Lewis' shiftiness and explosive, breakaway speed, cornerbacks or safeties are ill-advised to challenge him with man-to-man coverage.

As the team's prime returner of kickoffs and punts, Lewis is quickly developing into the type of home run threat that keeps opponents on edge and keeps fans from leaving their seats.

Yes, the transformation appears to be complete. Lewis is no longer the kid from Maryland who so effortlessly burned all of those overmatched defensive backs in the Atlantic Coast Conference. As the Ravens swing past the midpoint of their 4-4 season, Lewis might be the team's most valuable player, despite missing two early games with a knee injury.

At 5 feet 7, 172 pounds, Lewis is the smallest guy in the locker room, but there is nothing light about the weight he carries in the Ravens' game plan. No one else combines his dual ability to put his team in good field position and into the end zone.

"He's a double jeopardy guy. I don't see [Lewis] as a 5-7 guy, because of how big he plays and how big his heart is," said fellow receiver Michael Jackson. "I see this guy every day. I see him do things [in practice] that I wish I could do, in terms of his quickness and his ability to change directions. He's not the biggest receiver, but he's a great complement."

With the diminutive Lewis, the numbers keep coming up big.

He is averaging a team-high 17.2 yards per catch on 26 receptions, third-highest on the team behind mainstays Jackson and Derrick Alexander. His four touchdown receptions rank second. He is averaging a solid 22.7 yards on 20 kickoff returns, and his 16-yard punt return average would make him the league leader, but Lewis needs at least 10 returns to qualify.

Lewis has been stuck on nine returns for two weeks. The Washington Redskins wisely chose three methods of dealing with him in Sunday's 20-17 Ravens victory. Matt Turk either punted the ball out of bounds, into the end zone for touchbacks or so high and short that Lewis had no choice but to fair catch the ball.

Still, a relatively quiet Lewis found ways to be effective. He rushed forward in a driving rain to secure both fair catches at the Ravens' 30 and 47. He also caught two passes for 48 yards, including a 39-yarder that set up the Ravens' first touchdown.

"We anticipated Jermaine would be a force this year, but he has probably been our best big-play guy," coach Ted Marchibroda said. "We could see his pass receiving improving by the end of last year. And with his returns, more so than last year, the confidence is there. The feel is there."

So is the maturity and the toughness. After he was drafted in the fifth round and signed a two-year contract in 1996, Lewis never complained about playing time. He simply absorbed his playbook, studied the nuances of the kick return game and attacked the off-season conditioning program. During the spring, when the team decided not to re-sign No. 3 receiver Floyd Turner, the job was Lewis' to lose.

"It's a matter of gaining the team's respect," said Lewis, who added about 5 pounds of muscle in the off-season. "I knew I could play last year, but I had a lot to learn. I got a lot stronger in the off-season. I could feel it in my legs when I ran my routes in training camp. I definitely think there's a place for me here."

The Ravens also have found Lewis to be a scrappy sort. Last month in San Diego, he broke off a middle route too late, stretched out for a high pass and took a vicious hit to the head by Chargers safety Rodney Harrison.

Lewis spent about an hour on the bench, a towel draped over his head, suffering from a concussion.

He came back in the second half to burn Harrison on a long pass completion, setting up a Ravens' score.

"I felt sick to my stomach when I saw that," said Lewis' girlfriend, Imara Stotts. "Everyone knows about Jermaine's size, but he is a strong individual. He's always positive, even about his mistakes."

"I don't even remember that play," Lewis said. "I remember my vision being blurred and the sun was shining right in my eyes. But in this game, if you can return kickoffs, you can do anything.

"When I was a rookie, I was more nervous with all of the hoopla of being in the NFL. That's behind me. I'm just trying to run better routes, make better cuts, set up my blocks better in the return game. I'm a lot more comfortable. I'm just making as many plays as I can, giving [the Ravens] all I've got."

NOTES: Marchibroda said the Ravens will practice again in full pads today, and cornerback Antonio Langham (hamstring) probably will not work out.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: New York Jets

Site: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Jets by 5

Series: First meeting

Pub Date: 10/29/97

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