Lewis isn't tiptoeing his way to milestone

Ravens: Delivering pain with each gain, the running back's straight-ahead approach has him meeting his 2,000-yard goal head-on.

December 18, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Jamal Lewis' speed came from running sprints. His strength came from lifting weights.

The blending of those talents to create a one-track mind came from his father, a railroad worker.

"As a kid, my dad always told me, `Don't let guys hit you, deliver the blow first,' " Lewis said. "That's my mentality. I like to break people's will and drive them down. That's a beautiful thing to watch them fold."

While breaking wills, the Ravens' 245-pound battering ram of a running back has been breaking into history.

In a season in which he has already shattered the NFL's single-game rushing mark, Lewis is 253 yards away from becoming the fifth player in the league's 83-year history to reach 2,000 yards.

Each step is delivered with power. Each yard is produced with a purpose.

"He's the kind of guy where, if you let him get rolling and get his pads down, he can just rip your arms out of the sockets," Bengals middle linebacker Kevin Hardy said a week ago. "He's a big guy with power, but he's got some speed, too, and he's a little bit shifty. When he has momentum, and is running `downhill,' look out."

Like the 8-6 Ravens in the playoff hunt, Lewis is going to have to pick up his pace the next two weeks.

The league's leading rusher is averaging 124.8 yards per game, which projects out to 1,996 yards. To become the first player to crack 2,000 in five seasons, Lewis needs to gain 126.5 yards per game against the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers.

"The chances," Lewis said, "are great."

The mark is within reach despite having the odds stacked against him most of the season.

Because the Ravens rank last in passing and second in rushing, defenses have stacked the box with at least eight players on more than half of the Ravens' offensive plays. That's eight defenders against the Ravens' seven blockers, which forces Lewis to bowl over at least one would-be tackler every carry.

Nevertheless, Lewis has recorded 100 yards in 10 of 14 games and leads the league in rushing by 156 yards.

"It's like I'm the sexiest woman in the world back there," Lewis said. "Everybody wants to get me."

Busting through defenses represents only half of Lewis' battle this season. After overcoming reconstructive surgeries on both knees over the past five years, he has had to fight through a season-long shoulder sprain, a recently banged-up wrist and the occasional reoccurrence of fumbling.

But persevering with a rugged endurance has Lewis primed to crash the select 2,000-yard club of Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis and O.J. Simpson.

"You can have some of the physical tools that he has and not be as productive," running backs coach Matt Simon said. "But when you consider what he can do when he gets free, it's a rare combination. Some of the great players in history had some of that like Jim Brown and Earl Campbell. Without question, he is one of those elite type of players."

Running short on MVP

In a year when Lewis could become the fifth player to reach 2,000 yards, he may not finish higher than fourth in anyone's Most Valuable Player voting.

The growing consensus is that quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Steve McNair and Tom Brady, along with running back Priest Holmes - all of whom are on teams with 10 or more wins - will gain more consideration than Lewis.

"It's hard for me to imagine Lewis beating Manning," said Peter King of Sports Illustrated, "unless he single-handedly lifts the Ravens into the playoffs the last two weeks."

Of the four running backs who have broken 2,000 yards, only Dickerson was not voted MVP by most publications. Dickerson had the misfortune of having his breakout season in 1984, the same year Dan Marino threw for more than 5,000 yards and 48 touchdowns.

"For Lewis to be fourth on what could be a 2,000-yard season seems sad," said John Clayton of ESPN, "but McNair, Manning and Holmes have the edge on him in my opinion."

If Lewis fails to win MVP honors, he may come away with the Offensive Player of the Year award. His 1,747 yards rushing account for 40 percent of the total offense of a potential playoff team.

"You have to base that MVP award on the value to a team," Ravens center Mike Flynn said. "Obviously, you see what we do when we run the ball well and when we don't. He's a very valuable player. There are some good guys like Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, but playing with Jamal and seeing what he brings to our team, he has our vote."

Browns, the sequel

In his run for glory, Lewis revisits his previous milestone Sunday.

He will go against a Cleveland Browns defense he torched for an NFL-record 295 yards three months ago. That fire is still burning.

"We should watch [that game tape] once during the week. Then we should watch it again the night before the game," Browns coach Butch Davis said. "That way, the memories of that game will be on the guys' minds when they go to bed. They'll remember how the Ravens embarrassed us that day."

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