J. Lewis may step outside to stay healthy

December 11, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Jermaine Lewis has made the most big plays of any Ravens receiver. He leads the NFL in punt-return average. And last week, he became only the fourth player in NFL history to return two punts for touchdowns in the same quarter.

Now, if only the Ravens could keep him on the field.

Lewis, a punt returner, kick returner and inside receiver, is the team's most dangerous weapon, but he has started only seven of its 14 games this season because of an assortment of leg injuries.

Clearly, the Ravens need to keep their 5-foot-7, 172-pound game-breaker healthy, even if it requires the additions of two players next season to help ease his burden.

Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, said the team needs to acquire "another bona fide returner" to spell Lewis on kickoffs and punts.

And both Newsome and coach Ted Marchibroda said the Ravens might convert Lewis to an outside receiver, a move that could lead to the departure of free agent Derrick Alexander and force the team to sign another slot receiver.

"I think to keep [Lewis] healthy, you probably have to put him outside as a receiver," Marchibroda said. "I think he could do equally as good of a job."

Newsome said: "We've got to do our very best to keep Jermaine healthy and productive so he can give us 16 games next year. As an organization, we have to address that.

"If moving him to the outside and taking him away from some of the punishment he gets as a slot receiver will help us, that's the best thing for us to do as a football team."

It certainly would be better for Lewis, whose diminutive stature makes him vulnerable while running crossing patterns and blocking on running plays.

But Alexander?

"That doesn't preclude Derrick Alexander from being on this football team," Newsome said. "Derrick can be on the inside. Obviously, he's a free agent. We're going to attempt to sign him. But we know what happened with Steve Everitt last year."

The question is whether Alexander would accept moving inside. Newsome said, "A receiver just wants to get the ball thrown to him." But Alexander bristled after playing the slot in a 37-0 loss at Pittsburgh on Nov. 9.

Ryan Yarborough started at wide receiver that night, with both Lewis and Michael Jackson ailing. Lewis and Jackson entered the game in the second quarter after the Ravens fell behind, but Alexander stayed inside.

"It's hard to switch like that in one week," Alexander said then. "But that [experiment] is over and done with. We should have stuck with Ryan inside and left me outside. We've got to get back to what we're used to doing."

Marchibroda put Lewis in the slot at the start of the season partly out of necessity -- the Ravens were satisfied with Jackson and Alexander on the outside but needed to replace Floyd Turner.

How would Lewis fare on the outside?

"I'm not sure," he said. "I haven't really worked out there. I'm not sure what I could do.

"In the slot, I've got a definite advantage on the defensive backs. It's hard for them to match up with me. I've got a lot of speed, and a lot of moves, also. It keeps them off-balance.

"If they put a safety or linebacker on me, I know I can beat them. They have to put a third defensive back in there. I usually can beat him, too."

Marchibroda conceded that edge, saying, "Some of his touchdowns have been real easy -- he has beaten his man by maybe two or three steps." But the coach added, "He's only valuable when he's on the field."

And the injuries to Lewis and Jackson, combined with the ineffectiveness of Alexander, were a major reason for the Ravens' offensive demise.

Receivers coach Richard Mann said Lewis could alternate between receiving positions, noting, "It wouldn't be so far-fetched to spot-play him inside and use him outside."

But full time in the slot?

It's too much.

"Over the years, in my experience, a guy of his size playing inside gets beat up a lot," Mann said. "He's got a small build. The nature of his routes, he's going to take a few hits.

"And when you get the running game going, the blocks he has to make, a lot of times it's a linebacker. Over the course of time, everything takes its toll. He's done well in there, but he's taken his shots."

Lewis added 8 pounds of bulk last off-season, but he said his weight dropped after he injured his knee, forcing him out of the weight room and into the training room.

Given all that the Ravens ask him to do, it's not surprising Lewis gets worn down. Lewis, a second-year player, won't complain. He did say, however, that handling fewer kickoffs might give him "more energy during the game."

"There's less chance of an injury on punts -- he's going to make the first guy miss, and he can fair-catch those that are a problem," Marchibroda said.

Still, the Ravens will be tempted to use Lewis on all kicks until they find another returner of comparable ability. And frankly, that might not be possible.

"I'm not sure what the answer is to staying healthy," Lewis said. "I do a lot for the team, as far as the number of times I touch the ball. It just adds up after a while."

It's subtraction by addition.

It's an equation the Ravens must change.

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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