Small steps for J. Lewis could be big for team

On the Ravens

Ravens Gameday

Ravens 37, Giants 14

December 13, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

RAVENS RUNNING back Jamal Lewis was standing in front of his locker with blood dripping down his forearm. He hadn't played much in the team's 37-14 win over the New York Giants yesterday at M&T Bank Stadium, but he did take a few steps toward possibly returning to top form.

A few steps are important when you've missed the previous two games with an ankle injury. A few steps mean a lot more when you've struggled through trial proceedings, investigations and court appearances. Those steps were huge for a team hoping to ride your legs into the postseason.

The final numbers for Lewis yesterday were eight carries for 32 yards, but it was a great day even for a running back who rushed for more than 2,000 yards last season, and wanted more than 1,500 in 2004.

"Heck, yeah, it's been a long year, a real long year," said Lewis, who has 683 rushing yards this season. "You've got pressure on you off the field, and you've got pressure on you on the field against the run because everyone is stacking the box. I got off to a slow start. But today, I played pretty well. The first carry felt kind of funny, but it loosened up, and then things got rolling."

Well, not the way Lewis rolled past teams in the past, but it's a start. If the Ravens are to make a playoff run in the final three games, they're going to need a healthy Lewis and his fresh legs. Reserve Chester Taylor has played well filling in as the starter in four games this season, and Taylor had another 104 yards rushing yesterday, but this team needs Mr. Smashmouth back.

There is one way the Ravens can control Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning on Sunday night, and that's by controlling the tempo and keeping Manning off the field. He can't score if he doesn't have the ball. That's where Lewis comes in. There aren't many running backs who can dictate the pace of a game the way he can.

So when he rushed eight times yesterday and reported no pain, there were a lot of happy people in the Ravens organization. When he left the field before the half and didn't play in the second, there were questions buzzing among the 69,856 partisan fans about his availability for the rest of the season.

The final verdict will come today. If there is little swelling and soreness, Lewis should be ready for the Colts.

"I had to re-tape it at halftime; it kind of loosened up over the first two quarters," Lewis said. "While I was gone, we gained a 10-point advantage. It was a little sore, but I think it was just more from running and opening up. The ankle has been in a boot for the last 2 1/2 weeks.

"Once we were up 27-7, I was only going in for emergency only," Lewis said. "We got everything accomplished. I got my blocking down and got a couple of runs in. Coach told me I would get about 30 snaps. We wanted to warm it up, see where it was, and that was about it. Now, we have to see how the ankle reacts tomorrow to what I did today, evaluate it and then see where it's at."

The Ravens would like nothing better than to let Lewis cut loose. Despite his denials, he was bothered during the early part of season by a pending trial on federal drug charges. He later made a plea bargain and accepted a six-month sentence, but was suspended by the league for two games - Oct. 24 and Oct. 31.

He came back for three games, but sprained his right ankle on Nov. 21 against the Dallas Cowboys. No one has seen the real Lewis on the field in 2004, not even Lewis. The Ravens' offensive line has been hit hard with injuries, as tackles Orlando Brown and Jonathan Ogden and center/guard Mike Flynn have missed extensive time.

But all three were back in the lineup yesterday. So was Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap. The only player missing for a half was No. 31. The Ravens miss him firing up the defense with a tough, 5-yard run. They miss him on stretch runs to the outside, where he turns the corner and then punishes a defensive back. He is as imposing as a runaway bus going downhill.

Lewis has rushed for more than 100 yards 24 times during his Ravens career. In those games, the Ravens have outscored opponents, 611-350. They need a healthy Lewis in the next two weeks to take the ball out of the hands of Manning, and then away from Pittsburgh's balanced offense.

"Not just out of Peyton's hands, but to keep us rolling, keep us going as an offense," Lewis said. "Next week, we should have all the pieces together. We got all the linemen back; now we have to go out and find that tempo. I haven't had that long, consistent time in there yet to actually find the groove."

Maybe this time, he will. Another week might be too late.

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