Lewis plans to tackle doubts with a vengeance

On the Ravens

Reflecting on Ray Lewis

September 08, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

TIME IN the NFL is winding down for Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, but there is still enough left for one more good, possibly great season.

We're not talking great as in the Ray Lewis of the past, when he was the most intimidating, indestructible and game-changing force in the league.

Those days are gone.

We're now talking about a player who has been in the league 10 years, still runs extremely well, can still make others around him better and will always play with a strong passion and knowledge of the game.

And there's one other thing: The doubters are back.

Throughout his career, whenever there have been questions about Lewis' ability, he has responded well to the challenge.

Lewis, 30, will do it again this year, because that's what great players do. When they're challenged near the end of their careers, they have the ability to rise up for one more great run, even though it won't measure up to previous Lewis standards.

It could be a long time before anyone ever does.

"I already believe I am the best linebacker in the game," Lewis said. "Now, I have to show one more thing - that I am the most dominating, influential person in the game and the best football player to ever put on a pair of cleats.

"I don't want to just be the most outstanding defensive player in the game this season, but the most valuable player. Period. I want to start a new trend, of giving defensive players some respect."

It sounds far-fetched, but that's Lewis' mentality going into the 2005 season. You can see and feel the energy coming off him. He's building, prepping for the season, a man obsessed with showing a lot of critics they were wrong about him last season.

"I read the magazines that say this or say that, say that I've lost a step, can't come back to play at a high level," Lewis said.

Has Lewis lost a step? No.

What he has lost is some power and strength in his arms and shoulders, from years of collisions. That causes him to miss some tackles now as opposed to years ago, when he never allowed an opponent to slip through his grasp. He also has lost some ability to shed offensive linemen.

But the Ravens aren't in a 3-4 defense anymore. They're back in a four-man front, and if the defensive tackles do their jobs by occupying offensive linemen, that will allow Lewis to run sideline to sideline.

That's what Lewis does best. He stalks running backs, taking away their desire to play.

"Basically, Rex [Ryan, the team's new defensive coordinator] and I grew up together on this defense because he was the line coach until this season," Lewis said. "When he became coordinator, the first thing he said to me was that he was going to let me do what I do best, and that no offensive lineman was going to get to No. 52.

"But it makes no difference what kind of defense I'm in, or what kind of front we're using. Football is a simple game. You just go out and play. Whenever people have doubted me, I have always proved them wrong."

He's right. Some pro scouts thought Lewis was too small to play middle linebacker when the Ravens drafted him in the first round in 1996, but Lewis made his first Pro Bowl appearance at the end of the 1997 season.

Some wondered how he would play after his legal problems and a trial in Atlanta in 2000, yet Lewis came back and had his best season, leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory without much of an offense or an accomplished quarterback.

There were questions about him returning in 2003 after missing 11 games in 2002 with shoulder problems that eventually required surgery. Lewis has played under three defensive coordinators and four position coaches.

Yet all he does is pull in more hardware. There are seven Pro Bowl selections and two NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards. He has led the Ravens in tackles eight years.

Lewis used a different training method to prepare for this season. Instead of working out after the season ended, Lewis took two months off for the first time in 15 years.

He also cut down on public appearances.

"Dating back to college, I always went right back to work as far as training," he said. "If I wasn't training, then I always had people pulling on me - `Go here and go there.'

"This time, I took a rest. I gave all the bumps and bruises time to heal. When I came back, it was like, `Wow!' I'm at peace, and I feel so much stronger. I've come into this season much stronger than I have in the past."

The new defensive alignment will cut down on the punishment to Lewis. Against New Orleans in the preseason, the Saints had problems recognizing the type of front the Ravens were using because of all the moving around. Lewis wasn't touched much at all. Some teams have gotten to him, but there haven't been as many clean shots as a year ago.

But that was the preseason, when veterans don't always put out a total effort. It'll be different when the regular season starts Sunday night.

That's when the mission begins for Ray Lewis.

"If you don't like me, that's cool. If you're man enough or woman enough to have said I've lost it, that's fine, too," Lewis said. "But if you've said that, be man or woman enough to come out and watch me play. That's all I ask."

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