Promise of future again goes on display Linebackers Boulware, Lewis and Sharper put learning to good use

December 22, 1997|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

CINCINNATI -- They remain the youngest trio of starting linebackers in the NFL, and what pleased Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis the most is the way Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper steadily erased youthful mistakes over the course of a 16-game season.

The league's most promising group of linebackers was on display for a curtain call in yesterday's 16-14 loss to the Bengals.

Lewis was his usual, hustling, relentless self, as he finished with a team-high eight tackles to end the year with a league-leading 201. Sharper, shooting gaps with the aggressiveness he has shown throughout the season's second half, wound up with three tackles. And Boulware, the team's top draft pick who has settled into a new position, harassed Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason on numerous occasions, although Boulware narrowly missed tying the NFL rookie record for sacks.

How far has this group come? The way Marvin Lewis sees it, they're not babies anymore. And they hardly resemble the confused group that blew assignments routinely early in the year. After a season of learning on the run, the Ravens' linebackers have given the team an exciting look into the future.

"I'd have to say the most pleasing thing is how they come to the sideline and talk, how they know where each of them should be and why," Lewis said. "It's such a transition [from college] to the NFL, whether it's a guy like Ray who came into this league as a linebacker or Peter, who never played there before."

At 22, Lewis has made the transition from outstanding rookie to budding superstar. He overcame a neck injury in training camp and battled through nagging hurts without missing a start. He averaged about 12.5 tackles a game and showed noticeable improvement in his pass defense. At this pace, Lewis probably will not have to settle for being the Pro Bowl's first alternate at inside linebacker next year.

"I just concentrated on having a great season, and I did a good job of staying healthy," Lewis said. "I didn't really feel any fatigue this year. I think I improved a great deal, because of the sacrifices I made in the off-season. I took my game to another level and tried to maintain. A great leader leads by example."

Boulware, the odds-on pick to be named the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year tomorrow after finishing with 11.5 sacks, came an especially long way as a pass defender. After missing training camp in a contract holdout, he played a furious game of catch-up while learning the game from an entirely new vantage point.

"I made some dramatic changes," said Boulware, 23. "At first, I was just kind of playing without really knowing what was going on. One of my problems is I wanted to keep my eyes in the backfield [like a defensive end] too much. It was a tough habit to break."

One good habit Boulware maintained was harassing the quarterback. He spent lots of time in Esiason's vicinity yesterday, and came close to recording his record-tying sack with nine minutes left in the game. Boulware was hanging on Esiason's right arm and shoulder as he completed a 5-yard pass to Cincinnati tight end Tony McGee.

Marvin Lewis also liked the way Sharper, 23, rebounded from a brief, midseason benching. Sharper tailed off toward the end of the season, but still finished fourth on the team with 78 tackles.

"Jamie always had the aggressiveness, but he's combined that with learning how to prepare and practice. He's made that step up into the NFL," Lewis said. "He realized you have to bring your briefcase and lunch pail and study every day. Ray prepared hard in the off-season. The other two guys need to do that."

Ray Lewis sized up his older but less experienced counterparts by saying, "Peter got his sacks, Jamie got his tackles, they played some good football for us. You have to be excited about what we have here."

One sack short

Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware was shut out yesterday and failed in his bid to break the NFL's rookie record for sacks. The top sack totals:

Player, Team .................. Year ..... No.

Leslie O'Neal, S.D. ........... 1986 ..... 12.5

Simeon Rice, Ari. ............. 1996 ..... 12.5

Charles Haley, S.F. ........... 1986 ..... 12.0

Boulware ...................... 1997 ..... 11.5

Vernon Maxwell, Balt. ......... 1983 ..... 11.0

Greg Townsend, L.A. Raiders ... 1983 ..... 10.5

Dana Stubblefield, S.F. ....... 1993 ..... 10.5

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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