Not No. 1, but not bad

Ravens: Jermaine Lewis, last year's big-play receiver, is having a quieter 1999, but he's not complaining about his lesser numbers in a new offense.

October 17, 1999|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Ravens wide receivers coach Milt Jackson usually has a cool demeanor. But ask him about Jermaine Lewis being the so-called No. 1 receiver, and Jackson raises his voice a little and starts talking with his hands, trying to get his point across.

"Who anointed him that?" Jackson said. "We have a multiple offense. This isn't a two-wide-out, two-back, one-tight end offense. Guys have to have a role. Most people who are in the business can understand and see that. Most people who just look at numbers have no idea."

Lewis' numbers this season have not been what many thought they would be. But Jackson says Lewis has done everything the coaches have asked and has been productive. The lack of big numbers is more a product of coach Brian Billick's offense than a reflection on Lewis.

In five games, Lewis has 12 receptions for 135 yards and no touchdowns. The receptions are second behind Qadry Ismail's 19, and the yardage is third behind Ismail (260) and Justin Armour (224).

But Lewis, who led Ravens receivers in yardage (784) and touchdown catches (six) last season, is content with his role in Billick's multiple offense. He knows he is not necessarily the guy the offense will run through.

One of two holdovers at receiver from Ted Marchibroda's reign as coach and the only proven receiver over the past two years, Lewis figured to be the Ravens' main receiver. He had six touchdowns of 50 yards or more last season, and his speed makes him a threat to score anytime he has the ball.

It did not work out that way in the preseason, with Billick repeatedly saying he did not have a go-to receiver. That held true in the regular season through the benching of Scott Mitchell and the rise of Stoney Case at quarterback.

Then, in last week's game against Tennessee, the Ravens' first three passes went to Lewis.

"Things were going my way earlier, and I was able to take advantage of it," said Lewis, who led the team last Sunday with four catches for 58 yards.

"I'm just trying to get better as the weeks go on. A lot of people expected me to come in and do a lot. This year, it is more `learn your role and excel in that.' That is the phase I'm in now, trying to get adjusted."

That would be getting adjusted to both the offense and quarterback. Case is the fifth quarterback in four years for Lewis.

Case found Lewis on a third-and-three late in the second quarter against the Titans for a 28-yard gain, Lewis' longest of the season.

"People have been critical that he hasn't gotten the ball enough," Case said. "But he's gotten the ball in some critical times. He caught a key third-down conversion against the Falcons [on Oct. 3] in traffic. We are trying to move him around and do some different things with him. But the defenses have been trying to take him away. That is what happens when you have a good receiver like that.

"Some weeks he is going to catch a lot of balls. Some weeks he may not catch any. It is according to what the defense is. The bottom line is, I've got to throw to guys [who] are open and not force it in to somebody."

That is fine with Lewis. He won't complain about not getting the ball enough.

"I don't approach the game like that," Lewis said. "Every player wants to get the ball. That is just competitive nature. I want to get involved in the offense. I just want to learn it and excel at what I do."

Lewis, at 5 feet 7, 172 pounds, is a difficult target for defenders to hit, and he knows there are other ways he can turn a game, especially as a Pro Bowl punt returner. He returned two punts (69, 87 yards) for touchdowns last season, although he is averaging 8.5 yards a return this year, the longest 28 yards.

Heading into his fourth season, Lewis said he focused more on being a receiver than returning punts.

"I tried to learn as much as I could about the receiving position," Lewis said. "I'd usually been focused on splitting my time between punt return, kick return and receiver."

Lewis, who turned 25 yesterday, took enough of a break studying the position in the off-season to get married to Imara Stotts in July. He said marriage has helped him mature from the rookie who found a niche in the NFL returning punts in 1996 after being drafted out of Maryland in the fifth round.

Lewis holds the Atlantic Coast Conference record for receptions (193) and is third on the all-time list with 2,932 receiving yards.

In his first two seasons with the Ravens, he played behind Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander, catching 42 passes for 648 yards and six touchdowns in 1997, mostly from the slot position.

Numbers like that are possible for Lewis this season. But if he does not put up similar statistics, Milt Jackson said, that will be fine, because Lewis is performing his role.

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