Ravens in purple haze with no J. Lewis

On the Ravens

October 23, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

THE RAVENS lost more than a star running back and Pro Bowl performer when Jamal Lewis was suspended for two games in violation of the NFL's substance and alcohol abuse policy. They lost a great deal of their offensive identity.

When the Ravens play the Buffalo Bills tomorrow at M&T Bank Stadium, a lot of their smash-mouth style will be gone as Lewis begins the first game of his suspension. Their profile as a running team won't change much because they have solid backups in Chester Taylor and Musa Smith, but you can't replace what Lewis brought to the offense, and to this team.

Besides the 2,066 yards rushing last season and the 494 yards in five games in 2004, Lewis often dictated the tone and pace of games. One of those punishing, 6-yard runs where he ran over three people would spark the Ravens as much as a vicious Ray Lewis tackle.

"We've been playing without Todd Heap, Travis Taylor, and Mike Flynn on offense," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "We haven't had Peter Boulware all season. Now we won't have Jamal Lewis for a few weeks. You move on. Chester Taylor and Musa Smith will step up. They have to. They're good players."

Billick sounds confident, but he's concerned. The Bills might be 1-4, but they play good defense. They're ranked No. 8 overall in the NFL, No. 5 against the run. They're solid in the middle with tackles Sam Adams and Pat Williams, and they have three good linebackers in Jeff Posey, London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes.

On any other day with Lewis in the lineup, this might not be such a big deal. He can intimidate. He can dominate. He shares the same characteristic as other great players, such as Ray Lewis, Jim Brown and Dick Butkus, who could take away an opponent's desire to play.

In the first Pittsburgh game this year, Jamal Lewis set the tone with seven tough runs on the first series. He wore down the Redskins with 97 yards rushing in the second half. In the past two years, Cleveland defensive backs Earl Little and Daylon McCutcheon, and Cincinnati cornerbacks Tory James and Deltha O'Neal shied away from tackling him late in games.

Nobody has that kind of fear of Taylor and Smith. When you game plan against the Ravens, there's a bull's-eye on No. 31's back. Just about all of the Ravens' success is predicated off Lewis, from trick plays to play-action passes. The Ravens are 21-5 in games in which Lewis rushes for more than 100 yards.

It will be tempting for Billick and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh to start throwing the ball all over the field tomorrow. Billick has never seen a deep pass he didn't like. The excuses are there, especially with Lewis out of the lineup. But no matter how tempting, he shouldn't do it.

Forget the "explosive plays." If they feel the urge, they should get a grip, close their eyes and think, Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh. Giving quarterback Kyle Boller a license to throw is giving him a license to hurt this team. He's not ready, and may never be. Opposing teams won't change their game plan against the Ravens. Nobody is that stupid. The Bills will cram seven and eight players near the line of scrimmage to stop the run, and try to force Boller to beat them with his arm.

The Ravens should oblige them by staying with the run. You can appreciate Taylor. He plays hard, and his slashing style is effective. But he doesn't have Lewis' power or durability where he can carry 25-30 times a game.

Smith runs with more power but is unproven. He played well in the preseason, but that's meaningless because he has yet to carry the ball in the regular season. Fumbling might be a problem, and Smith still runs a little high or straight up, but he has surprising speed to the outside.

With or without Lewis, the Ravens still have one of the biggest offensive lines in the league. A key will be how well guards Edwin Mulitalo and Bennie Anderson perform against Adams and Williams. If the Ravens stick with the run, they might be able to wear down Spikes and Fletcher, both of whom run well but lack great size. The Ravens might want to mix in a few more safe passes, possibly getting the ball more to B.J. Sams on swing passes or screens out of the backfield, where he might draw one-on-one coverage.

It will be interesting to see the Ravens' game plan. There will definitely be more finesse tomorrow than power. It's out of necessity because the player who has done most of the smashing the past two years is out of the lineup. The Ravens can substitute for him, but they can never replace Jamal Lewis.

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