Lewis a rock for a team on shaky ground

November 16, 1997|By John Eisenberg

Ray Lewis and Jerome Bettis ran into each other socially last weekend in Pittsburgh before the Ravens played the Steelers.

"You know I'm gonna be coming," said Bettis, the Steelers' powerful running back.

"And you know I'm going to be waiting," responded Lewis, the Ravens' middle linebacker.

The Steelers mauled the Ravens the next night, but Lewis made good on his promise. He was waiting for Bettis -- and for any other Steeler who wandered into his jurisdiction.

Finishing with 14 unassisted tackles and three assists, including a memorable slam-dunk of the 245-pound Bettis on a run up the middle, Lewis was the sole bright light for the Ravens on a dark night.

It was a signature performance by a young player emerging as a force, a playmaker, a leader -- everything the Ravens, or any team, could want from a middle linebacker.

"He reminds me of Greg Lloyd," said Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, invoking the name of the Steelers' All-Pro linebacker. "Greg asks me about Ray every time we play, which is quite a compliment. I think Greg sees himself in Ray, too."

A 1996 first-round draft pick from the University of Miami, Lewis, 22, could make the Pro Bowl this season if enough players, coaches and fans see Lloyd-like talent in him. (The votes of all three groups are weighted.)

But even if he doesn't make the Pro Bowl -- the competition is stiff, and the Ravens' losing record doesn't help his profile -- his name is already on the short list of the NFL's best young defenders.

What tackle Jonathan Ogden is on offense for the Ravens -- the franchise -- Lewis is becoming on defense.

"You have a choice -- either you're going to be an average player in the NFL or one of the great ones," Lewis said. "Either you just play and pick up your paycheck every Monday, or you become known as a great football player. I want that."

His numbers suggest he is delivering "that" and more this season. He has made 108 unassisted tackles and assisted on 32 others in 10 games, for an astounding average of 14 tackles a game.

His totals are higher than the combined totals of the Ravens' second- and third-best tacklers, Stevon Moore and Michael McCrary.

With three tackles in today's game against the Eagles at Memorial Stadium, Lewis would surpass his total for last season, when he led the Ravens in tackling as that rarest of football creatures, a starting rookie middle linebacker.

His higher numbers are due partly to Tony Siragusa and the rest of the Ravens' improved defensive front, which is setting up a lot more runners for Lewis to put down.

But you can only lateral so much credit for tackling numbers that huge. It's simply a fact that Lewis is making more and more plays, and missing fewer and fewer.

"Ray did a good job last year," Marvin Lewis said, "but this year he has a much better understanding of the different offenses he is facing every week, and what his role is in stopping them."

The player agrees wholeheartedly with his coach.

"The big change for me [from 1996] is studying and focusing," Ray Lewis said. "I like to go home, sit downstairs by myself and just study film alone. You can read things when you're alone. You can just focus on the field and learn the for- mations. And then I see the formations on Sunday and I know what's coming. It's easy."

That's experience?

"And maturity," Marvin Lewis said. "Ray also is more prepared physically. A lot of first-year players need that first off-season to develop after they get here [to the NFL] and realize how tough and physical it is. Ray was one of the guys who was here early every morning and every day during the off-season."

But the cold calculation of big statistics, weight work and study habits still doesn't illustrate Lewis' energetic playing style. He is a shouter, a fist thrower, a trash talker; the Raven most likely to bounce off a teammate and give an animal yell after a big hit. You can sense his intensity from the worst seats in the house.

"I'm having fun," Lewis said. "It's like when you're a kid out playing in the yard and you're just wanting to make all the plays and have fun. That's what I'm doing."

Marvin Lewis said: "He gets very excited out there, sometimes so excited that he misses a play. With time, he should be able to channel that excitement in the right direction all the time."

Making the Pro Bowl will be tough, as well as Lewis has played. Two inside linebackers made the AFC squad a year ago, and one, the Steelers' Levon Kirkland, is having another huge year. The Chargers' Junior Seau is a perennial Pro Bowler at the position, and others playing well include the Jets' Marvin Jones, the Dolphins' Zach Thomas and the Patriots' Ted Johnson.

The AFC head coach does get to pick a wild-card player, which has been an extra linebacker more than a few times.

"Everyone dreams of being at the Pro Bowl, being an All-Star," Ray Lewis said.

Said Marvin Lewis: "Ray will have that opportunity in his career. But winning games goes hand-in-hand with going to the Pro Bowl. We have to play better defense so our guys will get that recognition."

Whether it comes sooner or later, Lewis certainly deserves to become the Ravens' first defensive Pro Bowl pick.

As he told Bettis before, during and after last Sunday's game in Pittsburgh, he is always going to be there.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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