J. Lewis expected out until Colts game

Injuries to Ravens' back, line trip up running game

December 03, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

If the Ravens need Jamal Lewis to successfully run the ball, their once dominating ground game could be in trouble beyond Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

A day after the All-Pro running back declared himself out with a sprained right ankle, the Ravens were noncommittal about Lewis' availability for next week.

His return is not expected to come until the Dec. 19 game in Indianapolis, a league source said yesterday. Lewis, who did not practice again because of swelling, left the locker room still wearing a protective boot.

The Ravens will start Chester Taylor in place of Lewis and use recently-signed Jamel White as the backup.

Asked if Lewis' injury could extend past this week, coach Brian Billick said yesterday, "I have no idea. When he says he's ready to go and the trainers say he's ready to go, he'll go. We can't worry about how long-term these things are unless it really takes a medical turn that prompts us to do something else."

The Ravens' rushing difficulties trace back to the middle of October, when Lewis began a two-game NFL suspension.

From that point to now - a span of six weeks - the Ravens' running game has not produced a 100-yard rusher (the second-longest drought in Billick's six seasons) and has plummeted from No. 2 to No. 14 in the league. In that stretch, which Lewis has played nine of 24 quarters, the Ravens have averaged 3.3 yards a carry, nearly a yard less than the league average (4.2 yards an attempt).

So, is the transformation from a mauling running game to a mediocre one as simple as not having Lewis?

"I guess you could say it's that simple, but that can't be the only answer," Billick said. "We've got to get back to solidly running the ball whatever the circumstances if we're going to maintain the winning profile."

Sharing the blame is a banged-up offensive line, which has failed to get into that same rhythm of blowing defenses off the line like it did a year ago.

Last season, when the Ravens led the NFL with 167.1 rushing yards a game, the starting offensive line missed a total of five games to injuries. This season, when they are managing 116.5 yards, they have dealt with four starters missing time because of injuries.

Left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who is still showing the effects of a pulled hamstring, can't run to the outside like last season and lead the usually productive sweeps. Casey Rabach, a longtime backup who unseated injured Mike Flynn at center, could be wearing down at this point of the season. And physical right tackle Orlando Brown, who is sidelined for at least a couple of games with a knee injury, has been replaced by a more athletic Ethan Brooks.

The only position to go unscathed - right guard - is being handled by a rotation of Flynn and Bennie Anderson.

It seems like an offensive line that used to create holes is now spending its time filling them.

"Anytime you knock that continuity around, it makes a big difference," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "This game is about repetition. When your reps in practice and in games come with a whole bunch a different people, I think it takes a little something away from it. So there's no question that has an effect on it [the running game.]"

The chance to end their running problems comes Sunday against the Bengals. The Ravens have consistently exploited the Cincinnati defense in the past, averaging 195.7 yards rushing in the past three meetings.

Run defense has been a sore spot all season for the Bengals, the third-worst unit at stopping the run.

What has hurt the Bengals is consistency. They can stonewall teams to 2 or 3 yards a carry for most of the game before allowing a few big plays, which spikes the run total.

"We just need to keep tackling better," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "Those big plays make a significant difference. Other than that, we've played pretty well against the run. But in those plays we missed tackles and don't get the guy on the ground, that caused a big play."

Those big plays have been missing from the Ravens' running attack.

Last season, Lewis built his reputation on running over a tackler and breaking a huge gain. But in their six-game slump, the Ravens have not recorded a run over 15 yards.

"I don't want to sound like I'm trying to make excuses, but things just haven't gone as well for us this year," Ogden said. "We haven't been able to pop those 80-yard runs. But I think we have the same attitude."

Now, the Ravens have to prove they can deliver the same results.

"I definitely think we can do a lot better," Rabach said. "The past couple of weeks haven't been up to our standards. I think we need to get back to basics and do what we do best."

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