Ask Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis about his favorite hit, and his eyes light up and he flashes a grin.
There was the time he ran down San Diego slot receiver Eric Metcalf from behind from the far side of the field after Metcalf had caught a 20-yard pass over the middle in full stride. Earlier this season, he outmaneuvered two blockers and tackled Pro Bowl running back Marshall Faulk for no gain on a screen pass.
But the best?
"The best hits always come under fire and nobody sees them, like when you hit a running back so hard his eyes roll back in his head. I've had a couple of those," said Lewis. "Eddie George [Tennessee running back] and I are very good friends off the field. A couple of weeks ago, I came off a block and hit Eddie as he came through the hole.
"His eyes kind of rolled back, and he just sat there on the field. The only thing I said to him was, `Hey Eddie, it's just me, Ray.' "
Two years ago, players in the league took notice of Lewis when he was named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad as one of the conference's best middle linebackers. Now, there are coaches as well as peers who believe he is the best in the NFL.
"People talk about him running side to side, making tackles, knocking balls down, picking them off," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said of Lewis, 24. "But he is a smart player. He'll false-step on purpose, then explode through a guy. I think he is one of the smartest right now playing the position, recognizing formations and keys. I think he is playing as good as anyone in the league right now."
Buffalo running backs coach Bishop Harris said: "He has all the natural skills to be a great inside linebacker, which he is. He has great instincts, great speed to the ball and the ability to change direction. To me, if he is not the best middle linebacker, he is one of the top two in the league. But if you had to mold a linebacker, you would probably do it very similar to Ray Lewis."
Arguments could be made for several others as the best, including Tampa Bay's Hardy Nickerson and Atlanta's Jessie Tuggle, but both are 34 and on the downside of their careers.
Miami has Zach Thomas and Pittsburgh offers 270-pound Levon Kirkland. Tenth-year player Junior Seau is often mistaken for a middle linebacker, but he really plays weak side.
Even including Seau, none of those players has had more tackles or is required to do more in their overall schemes than Lewis. From 1996 to 1998, Thomas had 362 solo tackles, Kirkland 264 and Seau 286. Lewis had 386. This year, he has 107 solo tackles. Add his 50 assists, and he has a league-leading 157 total tackles.
"Ray can make tackles from sideline to sideline," said Jacksonville Jaguars right guard Zach Wiegert. "He can rush the passer. He can cover people. He's just an all-around player.
"You can line him up at about six other positions and he can hold his own," said Wiegert. "That is why he is the middle linebacker -- because he is expected to make all the plays and he does. He's the best linebacker I've played against."
`He covers a lot of room'
Buffalo had an open date last weekend, so Bills quarterback Doug Flutie watched the Ravens' game against Tennessee. He saw Lewis run down Titans quarterback Steve McNair from behind. Only five weeks earlier, Lewis ran down Flutie in the open field. Twice. Flutie isn't feeling so bad now.
"His biggest asset is speed," said Flutie, possibly the game's most elusive quarterback. "That's what I saw and I don't have to get up in his face and block him. In normal situations, where I can get out of the pocket and work a move on somebody and run, I was only getting 5 or 6 yards instead of breaking it for 16. He covers a lot of room. He is at the middle linebacker position, but has the agility of a defensive back."
Lewis can't remember his time in the 40-yard dash, but it was 4.5 seconds coming out of college. He doesn't take his speed for granted, either. Lewis hired a personal trainer two years ago, and works out at a stadium in Orlando, Fla., in the off-season.
A typical routine consists of running the entire stadium steps with a 50-pound body suit. He then runs 15 to 20 100-yard sprints before taking off the added weight and going through his usual pass drops and other drills.
"By that time, I can fly," said Lewis, who tells quarterbacks, "I'll be back," after each sack. "I've always been the one to live off speed. In the off-season, I build power and work hard to maintain speed. That's something I don't want to lose. As long as the Lord continues to bless me with speed, I can play this game."
Seau has good range, but he doesn't always have to take on blockers. As a weak-side linebacker, he is often uncovered, much like the Ravens' Jamie Sharper, who plays the same position. Kirkland has speed and agility but plays in a 3-4 scheme and has another inside linebacker to help him patrol sideline to sideline.
Kirkland plays a more physical game than Lewis, but Lewis reacts better.