J. Lewis set again to carry Ravens

49ers' rushing defense isn't golden on the road, so ground game is key

November 30, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

A week after winning through the air, the Ravens must become grounded.

Looking to running back Jamal Lewis and not looking ahead to next week's AFC North showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals is seen as the critical combination today at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens (6-5) will meet the San Francisco 49ers (5-6).

Ravens coach Brian Billick knows it. His players know it. Even 49ers coach Dennis Erickson knows it.

"If they don't get it to Jamal, they are crazy," Erickson said. "He is something special and can run. When they get that going, Anthony [Wright] can throw the ball with confidence. They are a team that runs the ball well, and they should."

The Ravens' focus has to be sharp for a game that comes after an emotional comeback win over the Seattle Seahawks and before the much-anticipated collision with the Bengals for first place in the division.

Billick said he didn't speak to his team about the importance of honing in on the 49ers and didn't even utter the word "Bengals" all week.

"They're focused," Billick said. "Half of those guys can't tell you who we're playing next week."

There is no such certainty regarding San Francisco's run defense, which ranks ninth in the NFL and first in split personalities.

At home, the 49ers hold teams to 51.8 yards rushing. On the road, they give up 160.2 yards rushing.

Last Sunday in Green Bay, the NFL's best ground game gouged San Francisco for 243 yards rushing. The Packers ran the ball 48 times and passed only 15 times.

"I think it's more mental discipline," Erickson said. "We have played hard, and for whatever reason, we have given up gaps on the road. At home, we stuff it. I wish we had an answer, but I really don't."

Now come the Ravens and their second-ranked rushing attack, which plays much better at home. In five games at M&T Bank, the Ravens have averaged 189.8 yards on the ground.

To make matters worse for the 49ers, Lewis may be getting stronger. His sprained right shoulder is progressing to the point where it no longer goes numb, and he has begun lifting again.

"I think that it's coming to pass," said Lewis, who entered Week 13 as the league's leading rusher. "I can actually feel my shoulder when I'm running with the football. It'll pay off big this weekend."

The other strategy with a potentially large payoff is running behind the NFL's biggest offensive line.

The Ravens' starting line averages 338 pounds; San Francisco's front four averages 279. The Ravens are built for smash-mouth football; the 49ers are built to negate the spread-it-out speed teams of the NFC West.

"I think that's our advantage," said Ravens left guard Edwin Mulitalo. "We are the typical big, physical line. I think it's a good matchup."

The biggest decision facing the 49ers is whether they want to bring down a safety for additional run support or keep him back to stop a revitalized deep passing game.

The Ravens still rank last in the league in passing, but they are coming off a game in which Wright threw for a 319 yards, the most by a Ravens quarterback this season. He connected with receiver Marcus Robinson for touchdown passes of 13, 50, 25 and 9 yards.

The trouble for San Francisco is that its tallest cornerback, Mike Rumph, is expected to be out with an ankle injury. That means the Ravens could have a sizable advantage if the 6-foot-5 Todd Heap or the 6-3 Robinson matches up against Rumph's replacement, Jason Webster, who is 5-10.

Although it will be tempting for the Ravens to continually expose that edge, the emphasis will remain on running the ball.

"That's our profile; we are who we are," Billick said. "We'd love to get that aspect of it cranked up. But we're going to need a complete game plan. We're going to need to hit some things outside.

"The No. 1 thing is turnovers and mistakes. We can't have the penalties we've had and we can't have the turnovers we've had and expect to win."

Turnovers have been costly for the Ravens (minus-4 turnover ratio) and beneficial for the 49ers (plus-12). San Francisco has taken the ball away 27 times (17 interceptions and 10 fumbles), which is tied for fourth best in the NFL.

"That is something that obviously commands our attention," Billick said. "We have just have to find a way not to turn the ball over. When we don't, things usually turn out well for us."

Turnovers have been the ultimate downfall for the Ravens this season. But last week's dramatic, 44-41 overtime win over the Seahawks has the Ravens turning over a new leaf.

"Last week, I think people grew a certain swagger about themselves that could have been lacking on both sides," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "It shows a will to win. When you instill that into a young ballclub, that's dangerous.

"Once we got that in 2000, it was beautiful because we started rolling. If guys can grasp what we did last week as a team, I think we can do pretty well in the playoffs as well as [the Super Bowl in] Houston."

Ravens today

Matchup: San Francisco 49ers (5-6) vs. Ravens (6-5)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

Time: 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3Inside

Scouting report, rosters, statistics and more. [Page 12e]

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