Breaking away toward stardom Ravens: Jermaine Lewis is learning to use his smarts as well as his speed to make an impact, giving the team a big-play threat on punt returns and at wide receiver.

October 07, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, Jermaine Lewis lacked the knowledge and confidence to try a move as bold as the one that worked with devastating results against the Cincinnati Bengals.

As a rookie, Lewis would not have dreamed of changing the Ravens' punt-return scheme on his own. But that's precisely what he did 10 days ago after catching a Bengals punt. Lewis started left, stopped suddenly, darted right, ran around two great blocks, then flew down the sideline to complete a game-turning, 87-yard return for a touchdown.

"Jermaine has got great awareness and great vision," Ravens special teams coach Scott O'Brien said. "Punt returners have to build awareness on the field, not only where they are when they catch the punt, but where they start their [return] and set up their blocks. It's seeing the blocks before they happen. It takes more than good speed to be a good punt returner."

As a third-year punt returner, Lewis no longer is relying on his blazing speed to mask shortcomings in his game. The technician has arrived, the package is more complete. Consider that his four career returns for touchdowns have come over his last seven games, dating to December.

The combination of experience, smarts and fast feet has unleashed a 5-foot-7 monster upon the NFL. Through four games, Lewis leads the league in punt-return average (23.1 yards) and is coming off a Special Teams Player of the Month award. He has returned two punts for scores so far, with each touchdown coming in a Ravens victory.

Ten-year veteran Eric Metcalf holds the NFL record with nine punt returns for touchdowns. Lewis, heading into the fifth game of his third season, is nearly halfway there.

"I tend to get into some hot streaks, and I learn something every year," Lewis said. "As a rookie, I wouldn't have had the feel to go against the [return] call [against Cincinnati]. Now, I have that mentality that I'm going to score every time I touch the ball. If I get comfortable on offense like I am on punt return, I'll really be dangerous."

As for the move from the slot receiver position to starting wide receiver, Lewis seems to be handling the change rather well. Although he has caught only 10 passes, he has parlayed those receptions into three touchdowns and a league-high, 31.5-yard average. No, Lewis is not too small to play wide receiver. No, he is not having problems getting off the line of scrimmage.

"I've always had some good moves to get off the line. It's just a matter of getting more reps and catching more passes," Lewis said. "There's a lot more timing to worry about [at wide-out]. You have to pay closer attention to your depth [on routes]. I still feel like my receiving is going to pick up a lot."

Lewis also expects his punt-return opportunities to dwindle in the coming weeks, as more opponents elect to kick away from him, or simply boot the ball out of bounds and accept undesirable field position.

In other words, Lewis can still do his job without touching the ball.

"The bottom line is, he puts pressure on the opponent," O'Brien said.

Another good sign for Lewis is his health. Remember the ankle, knee and hamstring problems that knocked him out of five starts last year? During his last off-season, Lewis decided to build up more strength in his lower body, and he cut down on the pickup basketball games that he said may have weakened the joints in his knees and ankles. Plus, the Ravens took him off of the first kickoff return team. That saves Lewis from absorbing some of the most vicious hits that are dished out on Sundays.

While Lewis thinks about his next trip to pay dirt, a huge payday looms for the fifth-round draft pick out of Maryland.

As a third-year player, Lewis is playing for a $238,000 tender in 1998, and he stands to become a restricted free agent in four months. Unless the Ravens sign Lewis to a long-term deal before then, they may have to match a huge offer to retain his services. Lewis figures to command much interest on the market.

The Ravens have had preliminary conversations with Lewis' agent, Ray Anderson.

"If I'm going to work something out, I would like to get it done quickly," Lewis said. "I don't want to think about [a new contract] before every game. I don't want a long, drawn-out process, and they tend to go on and on. That's a lot to think about."

Pat Moriarty, the Ravens' vice president of administration, said he has not entered into specific contract dialogue with Anderson.

"Jermaine is a good example of a guy you'd want to extend. We'd like to start a dialogue sooner rather than later," Moriarty said. "My job is to analyze the market."

Anderson hinted that the Ravens will find out soon enough about Lewis' market value, and that he wouldn't mind listening to offers from other teams.

"Anybody who runs a business knows that, as productivity goes up, the value of an asset goes up," Anderson said. "Letting the system work for us is a potential scenario we've thought about.

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