Taxing M. Smith may pay off later

Team puts running back through tough preseason in case J. Lewis is absent


August 19, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

At the end of the preseason, if all continues to go as planned, Ravens running back Musa Smith may want to treat himself to a day at the spa.

Deep-tissue massages mixed in with a little rest and relaxation might be needed to relieve what has been a grueling precursor to the regular season for him so far. With three games left, life for Smith may get even tougher.

The Ravens are working Smith and Chester Taylor to the bone with the hope that duo will be well-prepared to handle the running back duties if Jamal Lewis' Nov. 1 trial date goes on as scheduled.

Lewis, who faces felony drug charges, will likely miss at least one game during a trial expected to last about two weeks. Neither Smith nor Taylor have started a game in the NFL, so coaches are using this time to ensure that production will remain steady in Lewis' absence.

If that means beating up Smith now, so be it.

"He needs to be carrying the ball a lot," Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said of Smith. "He needs to get tired, touch the ball and focus on protecting it. All those things, you can only simulate best in game situations."

Smith has been battered more than any other running back during training camp (including undrafted rookie Kory Chapman). While long-shot rookies are usually the ones being thrown around like rag dolls, it has been Smith in the backfield on a number of full-speed scrimmages.

During one recent practice, linebacker T.J. Slaughter deposited Smith flat on his back at the line of scrimmage, drawing moans from the crowd. In another practice, nearly the entire defense pursued Smith and would not back off until he was brought violently to the ground.

But the topper came in last week's Ravens' win over the Atlanta Falcons when Smith carried the ball 14 times, twice as much as any other person on either team. He only gained 26 yards, with his longest run just 8.

Eight of his carries gained 1 yard or less, but that was not important for the Ravens. What coaches want to see - and the reason why they have worked him hard in practice - is Smith prove he knows where the hole is supposed to be, knows how to pass protect and knows the importance of battling through fatigue to stay in the game.

In those areas, Smith has graded out well.

"I wasn't sore the next morning," Smith said. "But it was a lot to learn from that.

"To really get the feel of the offense and the running game, I need to carry [the ball]."

Anyone with a vested interest in Smith's future feels the same way.

Smith suffered a knee injury the first week of training camp last year and eventually had minor surgery. He missed the first five games of the regular season and did not get his first carries until late in a blowout win over the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 30.

Since the Ravens have little contact during practices in the regular season, those were the first hard hits on Smith's body as a professional. He went on to carry the ball just four other times the rest of the season, all late in a blowout win at Cleveland.

Until the Falcons game, Smith had not taken a real pounding since he was the focal point of the University of Georgia's offense two years ago.

"He hasn't played," running backs coach Matt Simon said. "And there's nothing like playing the game, being comfortable with the speed. The tempo of the game changes as it moves out of preseason and into the season. Musa needs to play, there is no question about it."

As for Taylor, coaches say he needs to play, too, so his number of carries will not be that much less than Smith's in preseason games.

Taylor was more dynamic against the Falcons, gaining 47 yards on seven attempts. Three of those carries were for more than 10 yards.

The general perception is that if Lewis is lost for a significant time, Smith is better-equipped to handle the bulk of the carries because of his superior build, but that is not necessarily the case.

"I think we are still trying to find that out," Cavanaugh said. "I'm not convinced yet that that is the answer. Chester has shown a lot, and he's a pretty bulky guy. He carries a solid frame. He's got good reads, good instincts. He's very good in pass protection. He does a lot of things really well, and he's not afraid to carry the ball."

Taylor and Smith will get the chances this preseason, which has taken on added importance since the announcement of Lewis' trial date last Thursday.

"If Jamal isn't going to be able to play, me and Musa will step it up," Taylor said. "I'm not going to focus on it too much. I'm just going to practice hard like I always do, then take it on when the time comes."

Camp update

Thumbs up: Bennie Anderson and Mike Flynn opened a hole so huge for Jamal Lewis, the play may have resulted in a 60-yard touchdown had it been a game situation. ... Corey Fuller took snaps with the starting defense at cornerback, then with the second team at safety. ... Lance Frazier looked comfortable returning punts.

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