J. Lewis is hoping to regain old form

Ravens: The star running back says his Nov. 1 trial date has nothing to do with his slow start, and he's out to prove it against the Bengals.

September 24, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Jamal Lewis overcame reconstructive knee surgery, going from a limp in 2002 to league rushing champion the next year.

The Ravens running back endured defenses designed specifically to shut him down last season, busting through tackle after tackle to record the second-most rushing yards in NFL history.

Despite his history of perseverance, there seem to be as many questions as defenders surrounding Lewis these days. The NFL Offensive Player of the Year is off to one of the worst starts for any running back following up a 2,000-yard season, managing just 119 yards (tied for 21st in the NFL) and averaging 2.7 yards per carry (35th) in two games.

Has Lewis finally met a challenge he can't stiff-arm his way past?

Has his Nov. 1 federal trial date for drug conspiracy charges become too much of a distraction?

"There's no truth to that," Lewis said. "Of course, I have to be concerned about it and, of course, I have to think about it. But I'm not going to take the off-the-field issue on the field."

The Ravens' playoff run this season relies heavily on the legs of Lewis. The concern, especially with the injuries to tight end Todd Heap and receiver Travis Taylor, is that the Ravens won't be able to move the ball unless Lewis can return to his breakaway form.

Of his 44 carries this season, more than half (23) have resulted in 2 yards or less. Actually, he has had more runs stopped behind the line (six) than ones producing 6-plus yards (four).

His rushing totals in the first two games (57 and 62 yards) mark the first time he has been held under 100 yards back-to-back times since December 2002.

In 38 days, Lewis' mind-set shifts from the Ravens' offense to his defense.

Lewis, 25, is scheduled to stand trial in Atlanta, where he faces a mandatory prison term of at least 10 years if convicted. He was charged in February with conspiring to possess, with the intent to distribute, at least 5 kilograms of cocaine and using a cell phone in the commission of that act.

"He's focused, he's working extremely hard, and he's in great shape," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I'm watching, and I'm watching very closely. I see no indication - none whatsoever - that his difficulties he's dealing with off the field are affecting him. There is nothing wrong with Jamal.

"So, again, I understand the question, and people have a certain perspective. But in doing so, it's not taking into account all the things that are going on right now."

One reason for Lewis' slow start is the lack of continuity with the offensive line.

All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden missed the first game with a sprained knee and remains less than 100 percent. Backup center Casey Rabach is filling in for Mike Flynn, who could be sidelined for another three games with a broken collarbone. And right tackle Orlando Brown was absent for most of training camp and preseason because of a family illness.

When Lewis ran for 2,066 yards last season, the linemen missed a total of two games because of injuries.

"We don't make excuses," Billick said, "but you just can't dismiss those things as not being a factor."

Other running backs in the league, even Lewis' backup Chester Taylor, have the advantage of facing defenses that usually play both safeties deep and use their front seven to stop the running game.

Lewis rarely has that luxury, as teams drop one or both safeties close to the line to shut him down.

"When I watch the Monday night game and you see seven guys in the box and you watch Green Bay and the hole is that big," said Lewis, spreading his arms wide, "I'm like, just give me two plays of that and I'll be happy. But it's not going to happen. I just have to come to reality. I just take what they give me."

Based on this series, Cincinnati usually gives up a lot to Lewis.

The Bengals, who play host to the Ravens on Sunday, have allowed an average of 127 yards rushing to Lewis. They have yet to hold him under 100 yards in six career meetings.

Run defense has been a sore subject for Cincinnati.

The Bengals failed to stop the New York Jets' 31-year-old back, Curtis Martin, who had 196 yards in the season opener. Then, last game, Cincinnati held Miami to 25 yards on 20 carries, which could be more of a reflection on the Dolphins' running back situation (they're down to their third option in Lamar Gordon) than the Bengals' run-stopping ability.

"You do your job, you make tackles, you have a chance to play well," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of his run defense. "If you don't, you're going to be in trouble. Just do your job. We keep making a big deal out of this. It's not a big deal."

In about a month, the big deal for the Ravens will be the availability of Lewis.

Team officials and Lewis said there is no timetable for when he will need to leave for the trial, and there is no schedule for how many days he will be required to stay in Atlanta for the case.

Lewis said he wants to continue to start because the Ravens play on Sundays in November. But Billick said he will wait before making that decision.

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