J. Lewis serves notice on first punishing carry

Ravens 23, Bengals 9

September 27, 2004|By David Steele

CINCINNATI - Jamal Lewis' third-biggest run of the afternoon, the 75-yarder in the fourth quarter, merely put the game away. The 46-yard play in the second quarter, on what was supposed to be just a dump-off to get Kyle Boller out of imminent danger, was only his second biggest.

His biggest run of the afternoon came much earlier and made the other two possible. It foreshadowed his day, the brilliant one he had and the miserable one the Bengals had.

Lewis' biggest run was his very first carry yesterday, on the Ravens' first snap. It broke for 32 yards, blocked exquisitely and executed perfectly. It didn't exactly suck the wind out of Paul Brown Stadium, but it got the current flowing in the right direction.

As Lewis put it some three hours and 232 combined yards later, "That tempo kind of brings the [opposing] sideline down, makes them say, `Man, here he goes, he's starting already.' It breaks them down a little bit."

It hadn't happened yet for Lewis this season, but signs of it for the Ravens' running game overall emerged last week against the Steelers, and they won. It never materialized in Cleveland, and they lost.

Until they prove otherwise, assume the Ravens, Lewis and an offensive line that is a beast once again can establish this every week, can deflate a defense at will the same way it did the Bengals'. Don't assume he'll run for 186 and catch another 46 worth every week, but assume that with enough touches, he'll make the opposing team feel as if he has.

In fact, take that a step further. Don't assume it, expect it. No, take it yet another step: demand it. Give it to Jamal and let nature take its course. Give it to Jamal until someone stops him. Give it to Jamal until the other team begs for mercy.

Lewis, of course, generally refrains from issuing demands about his touches. He hinted earlier in the week that getting him involved in the passing game couldn't hurt - and he sure did prove it on that second-quarter stampede down the sideline, with tacklers bouncing and sliding off him like raindrops off a windshield.

Like any elite back, his fondest wish is to be used. He, or anyone else, could have made a case to be used even more yesterday than he was. The Bengals should consider themselves lucky he didn't run so far down their throats that they gagged on him.

He likely won't be subjected to such Pop Warner-level tackling every week. As the game approached, Marvin Lewis answered the usual questions about how his team could stop Jamal, with a simple "Tackle him." Either he needs better listeners or better tacklers. Chances are good that he'll get both eventually.

Still, it's easier said than done. "Man, Jamal is hard to hold onto once he gets going," Jonathan Ogden said with a grin.

As one of his regular escorts, Ogden also was aware of the effect such an opening series can have: "At the start of the game, the crowd's into it, you're all fired up, then we hit you with Jamal and we just go down the field. They know that was their best shot, and it's not going to get any better than that."

On the contrary, it gets worse. If it's proven too difficult on the very first play from scrimmage, forget it. Which brings us back to the original point: make it as hard as possible by getting it to him as often as possible.

This goes against Brian Billick's desire for balance, and it's not as if he doesn't have a point. Far down the road, teams will gear up even more than they are now to make someone besides Lewis beat them; a little closer on that road, in midseason, they might not have Lewis to overuse or underuse at all.

That might explain, then, the first-and-goal at the 4 that was set up by Lewis' charge out of the starting gate and an 18-yarder on his second touch. Try Chester Taylor up the middle. OK, try Jamal going right, instead of the side he'd already softened up. OK, roll Boller out to the right. OK, bring on Matt Stover. Ugh.

In defense of the play-calling, the combination of Lewis bruising up the Bengals and the Bengals' arm-tackling and fingernail-tackling did open up the field for everybody - and it truly was everybody, because nearly every healthy skill player was put to use. And was that Boller running to daylight, or was it Michael Vick?

Oops, sorry, that was Daunte Culpepper. One more two-fumble day like this, and the Butterfingers people will come calling with an endorsement deal.

Which brings us, again, to this point: Jamal with the ball above all. He's bringing down the other team when he carries the ball. Run him enough, and maybe the mere sight of him will have the same impact.

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