J. Lewis can hurt a defense, if it doesn't hurt him first

July 28, 1998|By John Eisenberg

Twice yesterday during the Ravens' morning workout at training camp, Jermaine Lewis slipped behind a cornerback and caught long passes from Jim Harbaugh, drawing cheers from the bleachers.

"That's what we feel he should give us," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said. "Jermaine is capable of big plays."

Lewis agreed. "It seems like somehow I always find a way to make a big play," he said.

He wasn't bragging. He was just telling the truth.

Lewis, 23, made so many big plays as a slot receiver and kickoff and punt returner last season that he finished fifth in the NFL with 2,025 total yards. His average punt return of 15.6 yards was the league's highest in 13 years. He returned two punts for touchdowns in one game.

After two years with the Ravens, he has become predictable: You know he will make a big play if he touches the ball often enough.

But as he steps up into the starting lineup at wide receiver, replacing the departed Derrick Alexander, the issue now is how to keep him healthy enough to touch the ball that often.

He missed five games last season with an injured ankle, knee and hamstring, a concussion and various other nicks. He also suffered a mild concussion against San Francisco as a rookie in 1996.

"I take a lot of hits," he said. "I might not get hurt so often if I didn't do so much between all the [kick] returning and receiving. That's a lot of hits. It adds up over 16 weeks. By the end of last season, I was hurting."

Every NFL player hurts, of course, but Lewis is bound to hurt more than most; at 5 feet 7 and 177 pounds, he gives away size in almost every collision.

"There were times last year when I was hurting so bad that I couldn't run a deep [pass] route," he said. "Every time I got tackled, my ankle was throbbing. They were going to put me outside [at wide receiver] in the middle of the year, but I was so hurt that I couldn't really run. That was really frustrating."

With his role in the offense likely to grow and with the Ravens still planning to use him to return punts and kickoffs, the pressure on his body figures only to increase this year.

"I worked out four times a week in the off-season, and I'm stronger now than I was last year, especially in my legs," he said. "My goal for the season is to not get [beat up] like that again. I don't want to play like that."

Easier said than done. How can he expect to stay healthy with so much expected of him and so many collisions in his future?

"I think he'll have it easier playing outside [at wide receiver] as opposed to the slot," Marchibroda said. "Playing inside, for a little guy, that's tough in there. Playing outside, the odds are better that he will stay healthy."

It also probably will help not to have Vinny Testaverde throwing him dangerous, leading passes over the middle, leaving him vulnerable to blind crunches from defenders. It was on such a play that he suffered his concussion last year.

Marchibroda also said he would mix in rookie Patrick Johnson on kickoff returns "to give Jermaine some relief when we see him getting tired."

That's fine with Lewis. Of his three jobs, he is least fond of kickoff duty.

"If you return five [kickoffs] a game, that's over 100 yards of running, and with a [hard] hit always at the end," he said. "By the fourth quarter, you're usually really tired and it's hard to run a deep pass route."

Punt returns are different. "I get to use my shaky stuff," he said with a smile. "I like punt returns. But I'll do whatever they want."

They want a lot.

It's hard to believe this is the same player who was no cinch to make the roster as a fifth-round draft pick from Maryland two years ago. Now, he is a major piece of the puzzle and a candidate for a contract extension, although recent talks went nowhere.

As much as the Ravens have hit home runs with high draft picks such as Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware, getting Jermaine Lewis in the fifth round was maybe their best pick of all.

"I've progressed a lot," he said. "I remember [in 1996] when I started out as the seventh man on the receiving [depth] chart and the second man on the kick return chart. Earnest Hunter was in front of me. But I have worked hard, and it's nice to see that work paying off. When Derrick left [to sign with the Chiefs as a free agent] and they said they were giving me the job, I was excited. Real excited. You can't ever stop, though. You always have to keep proving yourself."

In two years, Lewis has proven that he is among the NFL's most dangerous game breakers when healthy.

Keeping the game from breaking him -- in half -- is his assignment now.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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