EVEN IF RAVENS rookie running back Jamal Lewis hits The Wall, he would probably run through it.
Everybody talks about The Wall. Almost every player has experienced it, but Lewis just defies the odds, like Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and middle linebacker Ray Lewis, each of whom has been named to the AFC Pro Bowl team the past three years.
Is Jamal Lewis just as special?
That will be determined over the course of time, but Lewis was extraordinary in the Ravens' 27-0 win over the Dallas Cowboys yesterday.
On a day on which announcers Pat Summerall and John Madden returned to Baltimore and a nation got a chance to see one of the NFL's surprise teams, Lewis, the No. 5 overall pick in the college draft last April, had a breakout game.
Not breakthrough, but breakout. Put him in the second tier of running backs in the league behind Marshall Faulk, Terrell Davis and Eddie George. But the Ravens hitched a ride on his back and legs as Lewis carried 28 times for 187 yards. Every time Lewis leaves the field, he leaves an impression.
Several Tennessee Titans defensive players said last week they were glad they didn't have to face Lewis anymore this season. The Cowboys feel he is worth every penny of the six-year, $35.3 million contract he signed.
And then some.
"He wasn't the first running back taken in the draft, was he?" said Dallas linebacker Barron Wortham. "I think he's a good back. I think he's going to get better. He runs hard and he runs strong."
He hasn't slowed down. This is the time when most rookies start getting heavy legs. It's understandable, because they spend the summer getting ready for their senior seasons in college. After that, they prepare for the scouting combine in February, then attend two to three minicamps before training camp opens in July.
Pro camps start a month earlier than college counterparts, and a lot of rookies begin to fade after Game 8 of their first pro seasons. But Ray Lewis never showed any signs of slowing down, and neither did Ogden.
Jamal Lewis is just getting started.
He averaged 6.7 yards a carry yesterday. On the Ravens' first scoring drive of the day, he had runs of 4, 8, 10 and 7 yards during the seven-play, 81-yard drive that ended with a 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Trent Dilfer to Qadry Ismail on the team's first possession of the game.
He carried the ball 15 times in the first half and 13 in the second, including seven times in an 11-play, 53-yard drive in the fourth period that ended with a 19-yard field goal by Matt Stover.
During the past four games, Lewis has carried the ball 19, 22, 23 and 28 times.
"He just keeps growing and growing with it," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "I keep waiting for the freshman slump to come, and it hasn't. He's maintaining that level. He's a strong individual, mentally strong. He's forged some strong relationships with some of the veterans, particularly [running back] Priest Holmes. He's a guy who will learn how it works and ask questions about how much time is needed in training camp and what to expect in December."
But some of the things Lewis does on a football field, well, big men aren't supposed to do. He is good at pass blocking and is a receiving threat out of the backfield. He has that rare combination of being big enough (5 feet 11, 231 pounds) to pound away inside the tackles and fast enough to turn the corner.
During one run in the third quarter yesterday, Lewis was actually high-stepping like a Walter Payton. Imagine what it feels like to be a cornerback or safety having to tackle Lewis while he's in full stride. Dallas safety Darren Woodson tried to tackle Lewis around his thighs after about a 5-yard run in the second quarter, and Lewis almost broke his arm.
Woodson returned in the third quarter with a cast on his arm.
"He's just like me," said Ray Lewis, one of Jamal Lewis' best friends on the team. "We're identical; it's almost scary. When my uncle met him, he said his behavior was just like mine. We're alike in a lot of ways: hungry, energetic, fiery, and we like to play football."
Jamal Lewis prepared himself to handle the load this season, even though he didn't know how much he would play. During the past three off-seasons, he spent time working out with Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe in their hometown of Atlanta.
This off-season, they were joined by Ray Lewis, and the two veterans beat up on Jamal Lewis during the workouts.
"I was the young buck, so they kind of took me under their wings," said Jamal Lewis. "I've always had a defensive linebacker's mentality. I like the style of being aggressive, real aggressive."
Lewis has 925 rushing yards this season. Before yesterday's game, he had accounted for 42 percent, or 439 yards, of total offense in the previous three games. When he's running well, teams have to bring up safeties to play against the run, opening up play-action passes and long passes over the middle to Sharpe.
When Lewis is running well, it keeps the Ravens' No. 1 defense off the field.
"Right now, I'm just running," Lewis said. "I haven't learned all I need to know about offenses and defenses in the league, but when I do, it's going to be a lot sweeter running around here."