THE OFFENSIVE identity of the Ravens may have to change again. The smash-mouth style is still in, but the team will have to make some adjustments because star running back Jamal Lewis can no longer shoulder the load alone.
It's no longer just the Jamal Lewis Show, but Jamal Lewis and Friends.
Lewis, who re-injured his sprained right shoulder Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, is expected to play against the Denver Broncos on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, but he won't be 100 percent on game day, or for the rest of the year. Lewis had to miss a few plays for the second straight week because of a sprained right shoulder.
When asked yesterday if Lewis' shoulder would be completely healthy again for the rest of the season, team trainer Bill Tessendorf said probably not. Coach Brian Billick anticipated that Lewis might wear down by the end of the season, but not show signs after Game 6.
The future has arrived for running backs Chester Taylor, a second-year player, and Musa Smith, a third-round draft pick out of Georgia.
"We had Musa Smith up for the first time [on Sunday], and he did well on special teams," Billick said. "Hopefully, he will have a cumulative effect on the numbers [carries] of Jamal.
"Again, as with any back, there is wear and tear. God forbid something happens to Jamal, it would change us a little bit," he said. "We are who we are in terms of the defense and special teams coverage. We think we have a couple of backs that we think we could continue to play that way. That is not to say they would play at Jamal's level. It's ambitious. It would put more pressure on the quarterback."
Uh-oh, I know what you're thinking. Go ahead, say it. Billick is going to go pass-happy, and now he has a bona fide reason to really show off the strong arm of rookie quarterback Kyle Boller.
It won't happen. There is no reason for concern. They have to get Lewis some relief. Will it have a dramatic impact? No. The Ravens still have the biggest offensive line in the NFL. Will it curtail production? Without question.
Even if it's only in relief, you can't replace the NFL's top rusher (843 yards this season). Of the Ravens' 351 offensive plays in 2003, Lewis has carried the ball 134 times. He has the speed to turn the corner and the power to run inside. He has been so effective that Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis replaced a safety with a linebacker Sunday to help slow Lewis.
Lewis' total number of carries aren't significantly different from a year ago, but he probably has absorbed double the punishment with teams constantly putting eight or nine players near the line of scrimmage. Three weeks ago, Lewis had problems with his left shoulder. Now, it's his right.
"I anticipate him playing Sunday," Tessendorf said. "We had a similar situation last week, and we held him out, rested it, and it settled down. It held up for most of the game. But Jamal has that style, that Woody Hayes 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust."
Tessendorf said that Boller also has a sprain of his left (non-throwing) shoulder, and that the team will evaluate his status daily. "Kyle has youth on his side," Tessendorf said.
Asked if Lewis, a fourth-year player, had youth on his side as well, Tessendorf responded: "After a year and a half [in the NFL], youth goes away."
Eventually, the Ravens knew Lewis' tough running style would force them to slow him down. That's why they drafted Smith in April. Back then, the plan was to have Smith ready in two or three years. A little sense of urgency has moved up the timetable.
But it won't be Smith, 6 feet 2 and 232 pounds, alone. Taylor, the team's top passing threat out of the backfield, will also be in the rotation. But if you want to see members of the Ravens' front office smile, ask them about Smith. Or ask running back coach Matt Simon. The kid missed a lot of the preseason with a knee injury and had arthroscopic surgery right before the season opener. He hasn't played an offensive down yet, but the consensus is that he is a poor man's Jamal Lewis without the burst to get around corners.
That's why Billick won't change his game plan much. All the pieces are still in play. The Ravens still have Lewis as the centerpiece and a rugged offensive line that is better at run-blocking than pass-blocking.
Plus, Billick has learned his lessons for the season, the most painful one in the season opener when he had Boller throw more than 40 times and the Ravens were routed by Pittsburgh, 34-15. He also learned from the three interceptions Boller threw against Kansas City (another loss) and the two fumbles and one interception Boller had against the Bengals (another loss).
The less you have to depend on a rookie, the better. You might figure Billick would be a little juiced up from the 302 passing yards Boller threw for against Cincinnati, but he has it in perspective. Boller isn't ready yet to play in the NFL, and the Ravens still don't have consistent receivers or the scheme to form a decent passing attack.
Their best chance of winning was to run Lewis, and now it's to run Lewis, Taylor and Smith. It sounds like a nice little law firm.
Two years ago when Lewis went down for the season with a knee injury in training camp, the Ravens were unprepared. They had to lure Terry Allen out of his retirement rocking chair to play.
The team learned from that experience. A team needs two good running backs to make it through the season, just like most need two good quarterbacks. The Ravens brought in both Taylor and Smith for the future, but the time has come because Lewis needs some help in shouldering the load.