Two teams looking for back road

Marquee matchup at running back may decide Ravens-Titans

Ja. Lewis vs. E. George

Both teams know establishing the run is key to winning playoff

RAVENS vs. TITANS

Afc Divisional Playoff

January 05, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Confronted with only a sliver of daylight, Jamal Lewis took the only route available to him Sunday. He went over the top.

It was a spectacle to see the Ravens' powerfully built, 231-pound running back dive headfirst into the end zone in the second quarter of a 21-3 wild-card win over the Denver Broncos.

It was not uncommon, though. The 21-year-old rookie has hurdled his way to touchdowns this season and dived for them.

"I don't like it," Lewis said yesterday of the airborne route, "but if that's what it takes to get in the end zone, that's the route I have to take.

"Anything it takes to get in the end zone, I'll try."

In a season when Lewis rushed for 1,364 yards and liberated the Ravens' offense, he figures to be a pivotal weapon in Sunday's divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.

Running opposite Tennessee's Eddie George in a matchup of marquee backs, Lewis' success -- or failure -- will have a direct bearing on the outcome.

"Realistically, these are two of the top running teams in the league," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "I don't care where they are ranked statistically. They have big backs, they have big offensive lines, and they are well-coached. They are going to find a way to run the ball.

"I think you are going to see some runs in this game. I think you will see a lot of first downs. I think the first team to abandon the run game is going to have some difficulty."

The Ravens enjoyed a record-breaking season with their top-ranked rush defense. The Titans ranked third in rush yards allowed. This is the territorial battle that will send one of these teams to the AFC championship game.

Statistics suggest the Ravens hold the upper hand. George, who finished third in NFL rushing with 1,509 yards this season, has experienced a steady decline in production against Baltimore.

In his first five games against the Ravens, George averaged 89.6 yards a game and 4.3 yards a carry, with two 100-yard efforts.

In his past five games, he averaged 36.4 a game and 2.7 a carry, with a single-game high of 63.

Perhaps that's why Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett was moved earlier this week to say, "Jim Brown couldn't run on us."

George is not oblivious to the trend.

"They have beaten us at the point of attack a few times in the run game," he said. "That's what makes them so great. ... They are a very physical team. I think pound-for-pound, they are probably one of the most physical teams that we've faced all year."

Lewis and George are two of the most physical backs in the league.

"If I'm a defensive back, I'm not going to hit him up high," Titans middle linebacker Randall Godfrey said of Lewis. "But I'm a linebacker, so I'm going to hit him straight up."

Said Titans safety Blaine Bishop: "[Lewis] reminds me of Eddie, but I compare his style to Herschel Walker back in his young days. Herschel had those little choppy steps, and he was so strong in his lower body."

Lewis said those stutter steps enable him to break to the hole at the last moment.

"If I take those little choppy steps, then I can go left, right, or back and forth," he said. "I take those so when the hole opens up, I can adjust and get to it."

In two games against the Titans, Lewis has ground out 157 yards, averaging 3.9 a carry.

"They play sound defense," he said. "The last time we played them, [he] had 99 yards. That's pretty good against the so-called No. 1 defense. I don't think we had too many problems running the football against them. [But] they play sound defense."

When Lewis ran for 58 yards in the first game against Tennessee on Oct. 22, he left an impression that lingered with the Titans.

"Our players came off the field after our first game and were very impressed with Jamal's speed, strength, size, his change of direction and his power," Fisher said. "He has only improved since the first time we played him. Our defensive players have a great deal of respect, and I think he is going to become one of the better backs in the league.

"What I like especially about him is that he acts like a running back. He acts like he has been there before. He doesn't draw much attention to himself. He makes a big play, comes back to the huddle and gets ready to make another play."

George had a franchise-record 403 carries this season, and hit career highs in seven different categories. He and Eric Dickerson are the only running backs in NFL history with 1,200 yards or more in each of their first five years.

At 6 feet 3, George is four inches taller than Lewis, and about 10 pounds heavier.

"He runs with power, but can make you miss," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel. "He can make you miss in a short area. You question his ability to have that breakaway speed, but it showed itself in last year's [playoff] game against the Colts, when he broke one [for 68 yards].

"They both can run inside the tackles, they both run with power. I think Eddie is a little more advanced in the passing game. Jamal is probably faster."

Lewis, who played at the University of Tennessee, remembers a pre-draft conversation in which he told Newsome he could match the production of the AFC Central's group of elite backs (Cincinnati's Corey Dillon, Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis, Jacksonville's Fred Taylor).

"I think I proved that to him," Lewis said. "This gives me more opportunity to prove it. I think with our defense, I'm happy to be on their side. Eddie George has got his hands full with these guys.

"We've got to step up on offense to help our defense out. If we go out and dominate on offense, we will establish ourselves as a championship team."

Sun staff writer Brent Jones contributed to this article.

Game data

Ravens (13-4) at Tennessee (13-3)

Where: Adelphia Coliseum, Nashville, Tenn.

When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Titans by 6

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