When will real R. Lewis re-emerge?

November 03, 2003|By Mike Preston

EIGHT GAMES into the 2003 season, Superman hasn't showed up yet. He usually wears No. 52, and nobody - absolutely nobody - can block him or gain 100 yards against him.

But old Supe has been a no- show.

"He usually shows up in November and December, when everybody else gets tired, when everybody else is bored and thinks it's over," Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis said, smiling. "Superman will show up, you watch."

Well, it's November. Where is he?

Lewis sealed the Ravens' 24-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars yesterday by catching a tipped Byron Leftwich pass with 44 seconds left in the game, his second straight week of pulling off heroics with an interception.

But Jacksonville also pounded the Ravens for 134 yards rushing, and, for most of the afternoon, Lewis looked like just another mild-mannered inside linebacker with 14 tackles, most of them well beyond the line of scrimmage. He hasn't had any super games this year, the kind we're used to watching.

We've seen Lewis wreck the Tennessee franchise in 2000 by pile-driving quarterback Steve McNair into the turf and then smacking Titans running back Eddie George into unconsciousness. Lewis once made Cincinnati running back Corey Dillon quit during a game, and he helped put The Bus - Jerome Bettis - on The Bench.

Never in recent years has a defensive player imposed his will so much on a team and a league as Lewis, but the dominance hasn't been there this season. Is it because of last season's shoulder injury? Or is it because his relentless style has started to wear down his body?

It's a number of things. But let's remember: Lewis is still the NFL's most dominating defensive player and one of the most imposing players in the league.

"I think he is playing great," Ravens outside linebacker Peter Boulware said of Lewis, who leads the team with 80 solo tackles. "It seems like this year Ray is playing two roles. He is playing hard, but he is also a coach on the field. He is doing a great job of putting guys in position on the field to make plays."

The Ravens have the league's second-youngest team. Take a look at the defense, and there are only four players (Lewis, Boulware, cornerback Chris McAlister and safety Ed Reed) an opposing offensive coordinator has to worry about and just one on every play.

It's No. 52.

"When a team breaks down the Baltimore Ravens, they start with 52," Boulware said. "Everything they do is to design a play that 52 can't make. That's very tough. I see that sometimes as a pass rusher. But with Ray, it's every play. That's why you see a lot of teams running misdirections at us, going away from him. Those misdirections allow them to get angles on him. They try to slow him down."

According to Lewis, Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor told him that during yesterday's game. Lewis had one, sometimes two offensive linemen blocking him. Other times, it was a lineman and a fullback. Sometimes, it was the tight end trying to stop him from pursuing off the edge.

"It's simple in our defense right now," Lewis said. "They don't want Ray Lewis to beat them. Run away from me, get away from me. Fred Taylor told me today, `I'm running away from you and going to force somebody else to make the tackle.' "

In the Ravens' Super Bowl- winning 4-3 defense, Lewis was the middle linebacker and he had two huge defensive tackles in front of him, Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, both well over 300 pounds. Adams was so quick he could penetrate gaps and interrupt blocking schemes. Siragusa was so wide and so strong he could crash a gap and get a piece of two offensive linemen, allowing Lewis to run the field uncontested.

But in the Ravens' present 3-4 scheme, the defensive linemen are quick and athletic, but not overpowering.

"Our guys [tackles] were holding guys back," Boulware said. "The guys we have now are quick, fast and make plays in the backfield. It's a totally different dynamic."

There is one other change, too. Lewis is smaller. He weighs 243 pounds compared with the 255 he weighed in 2000. He is faster, but he has had trouble tossing aside some of the bigger offensive linemen. He won't admit it, but Lewis lost a major contributor to his career last season when private trainer Kurtis Shultz become an assistant trainer with the Bengals.

Shultz had no problems rousing Lewis out of bed in the morning. He had no problems getting in Lewis' face when he thought Lewis wasn't working hard enough. They had mutual respect. This past offseason, Lewis couldn't lift heavy weights because of surgery to repair his partially separated shoulder, which forced him to miss 11 games in 2002.

"If somebody said I dominated my whole career, they'd be lying to you," Lewis said. "If somebody said, I dominated, dominated, dominated, then maintained, maintained, maintained, you could accept that and ride off into the sunset. You get where I'm going with this, don't you?"

It's Lewis' way of saying he is still The Man. He has been in the league eight years. He has bailed out this team numerous times, and had to do it again when coach Brian Billick and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh made that boneheaded decision to throw a long pass to Heap on second down instead of running the ball and running some time off the clock with 2:30 left.

After years of launching his body into tight ends, and running down halfbacks on sweeps or screens, Lewis is still the focal point of any opposing offense. He may never be the dominant player he was a year ago in those back-to-back games against Cleveland and Denver, but don't be foolish enough to bet against him.

Superman always showed up when he was needed the most.

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