Advancing on comeback trail, J. Lewis reaches Ravens start

Repaired knee will feel full contact for 1st time in Thursday preseason game

August 13, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The biggest question surrounding the Ravens' future will be answered Thursday night.

Running back Jamal Lewis will start the preseason game against the New York Jets at Ravens Stadium, where he will encounter his first tackle since blowing out his left knee at the beginning of last year's training camp.

Although Lewis likely will run the ball only three times, the Ravens will have a better handle on how far he has come since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament on Aug. 8, 2001, and how close he is to the power runner who was the offensive centerpiece of their Super Bowl run in 2000.

"The real test is Thursday with the first couple of plays," Lewis said. "You want to get that first hit out of the way and just go with it."

The final decision on whether to play this week came down to Lewis.

After Lewis had been cleared by doctors and trainers, coach Brian Billick talked with his running back Sunday morning and said: "I'm not prompting, I'm asking: Do you want to go now or do you want to wait to next week?"

Surprised by the question, Lewis quickly responded: "I'm ready. I want to go now."

Sustaining a hit represents the biggest hurdle in Lewis' comeback.

Throughout four off-season minicamps and the first two weeks of training camp, Lewis has looked strong accelerating through holes and planting his left leg to make cuts. But the Ravens have handled him delicately, holding him out of contact drills until he worked his way back into playing shape.

Lewis sat out the team's intrasquad scrimmage two weeks ago and Friday's preseason opener against the Detroit Lions. Except for a few accidental hits and a couple of falls in camp, Thursday's game will be the first time Lewis gets tackled since he suffered the season-ending knee injury last summer.

The Ravens are planning to keep Lewis in for six to eight plays, which amounts to one or two series. While everyone agrees that Lewis could handle more Thursday, the Ravens want to ease their former first-round pick back into action.

"What we can get out of him and what I'll put him through are two different things," Billick said. "We can probably get a good solid quarter and a half from him. We'll give him about half a dozen snaps."

The Ravens originally had hoped to start Lewis in the preseason opener, but they were hesitant because of Lewis' weight.

Lewis reported to camp at 254 pounds, with 11 percent body fat. He has since trimmed down to under 250 pounds and estimated his body fat at 7 percent.

When Lewis set the franchise's single-season rushing mark of 1,364 yards in 2000, his playing weight was 235 pounds. The team wants Lewis' weight to be closer to 240 by the start of the regular season.

"Everything is coming together," Billick said. "He looks strong; he's working very hard. The weight and the body fat are coming down."

Lewis' brief appearance could be his last game action until the preseason finale on Aug. 29. But holding Lewis out of next week's game in Philadelphia has more to do with the condition of the Eagles' artificial turf than the condition of the running back.

Last year, the Ravens' preseason game in Philadelphia was canceled because of treacherous turf at Veterans Stadium.

Instead, the Ravens would put Lewis through heavy contact practices this weekend on the softer grass fields of McDaniel College.

Lewis received a primer for this week's game from his friend Ray Lewis.

During a two-minute drill yesterday, Jamal Lewis caught a pass in the right flat and tried to run out of bounds and stop the clock. But Ray Lewis, the Ravens' All-Pro inside linebacker, collided into Jamal Lewis' back, sending the running back rolling to the ground.

But Jamal Lewis jumped up immediately and rushed back into the backfield so the offense could quickly run another play.

"[Ray] caught me by surprise," Jamal Lewis said. "It felt good to go down and get back up, not really feeling anything and taking it on."

The next step is to actually get tackled and withstand a hit to his surgically repaired knee.

"Somebody's going to get their good lick on him at some point," running backs coach Matt Simon said, "and he needs to pop right up and get back on the horse."

Although Thursday represents the best measuring stick, Lewis said he still considers himself ahead of schedule and believes he can carry the ball 25 to 30 times a game in the regular season.

"I can take it as many times as he [Billick] wants to give it to me," Lewis said. "I hope he wants to give it to me over 25 times a game. I'm ready to take on whatever I have to do. I'm in good condition, and I think I'm back strong as I was. My knee is good and healthy, and it's able to take on the load."

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