Until J. Lewis finds rhythm, let Taylor pick up the beat

October 18, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

It might be time for a little role reversal of running backs Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor. Taylor should at least get more carries.

The Ravens have waited five games for Lewis to break out like the old Lewis, but so far he has been hesitant, and there are times when his limp from a past ankle injury is noticeable coming off the field.

You feel compassion for Lewis, because he is such a bear of a runner with so much passion for the game, but no one can deny the results.

Taylor, in his fourth season, has 202 yards rushing on 35 carries, and Lewis has 292 yards on 98 carries. Breakaway ability?

Right now, the advantage goes to Taylor. In an offense that lacks explosiveness, you need as much big-play potential as possible.

It's Taylor's time.

It's time to flip the script.

The Ravens have given Lewis ample time to prove himself, and maybe with more time off, he can fully overcome the ankle injury or any side effects from not getting the new contract he says the team promised him during the offseason.

But it's easy to see who has been the most productive. Taylor just seems to be able to navigate the line of scrimmage and accelerate through holes better than Lewis.

They aren't big ones, but you don't get huge ones in the NFL. You get creases of daylight through masses of human flesh. Once you find them, you just go.

Granted, Lewis probably gets challenged more than Taylor. When he's in the game, you're going to see more defensive players crammed near the line of scrimmage as opposed to Taylor, who has a stronger reputation as a threat out of the backfield as a receiver.

"I'm good. I just have to get unleashed. I have to find my rhythm," Lewis said. "I haven't gotten in the flow of the game."

Why? "You do the math," he said. "You look at the time I'm out on the field, and then the opportunities I have. When I'm out there, I have a bull's eye on my back. Teams know what we're going to do. They key on me. They key on [quarterback] Tom Brady of the Patriots, but at least he can throw the ball to someone else. With Chester in the game, there is a 50-50 chance we're either going to pass or run the ball. When I'm in the game, we're going to have to go outside [pass to receivers Derrick Mason or Randy Hymes]. That will open it up."

Lewis says his ankle is completely healthy, and he pointed out that the Browns played a 4-3 defense leading up to the Ravens' game, but changed to a 6-2 to stop him.

However, you can't deny Taylor's acceleration. He has outstanding body lean, where opposing tacklers find it difficult to get under his pads. Regardless of the situation, Taylor seems to always come up with positive yards.

Lewis hasn't been able to find those cutback lanes that are crucial in the Ravens' north-and-south running game. He is indecisive, instead of going straight ahead. We've only seen flashes of his former brilliance, nothing that captivates us like the old Lewis.

It's a tough decision for the Ravens, but a luxury few teams have. A few more carries for Taylor won't hurt. How many teams have backups who are capable of replacing a Pro Bowl starter?

The Ravens can still split time between the two backs like they have most of the season, but Taylor should get more of the load early. If the Ravens are fortunate to take a lead midway through the third quarter or into the fourth, then they can fully unleash the 245-pound Lewis.

Defenses don't want to see him fresh. He can just grind and grind, and wear down opponents even more while the Ravens control the time of possession. It's a good formula that also allows Lewis to heal properly and get a view from the sideline that might help him.

It will be tough for Lewis. He has been a starter since his rookie year when he teamed with the league's best defense to carry the Ravens to the Super Bowl title in January 2001.

He has been the victim of some hard luck lately, from his prison sentence during the offseason to his injury rehabilitation and comeback attempt.

But, apparently, the Ravens are waiting for the old Lewis to resurface, too. It's not too late for that to happen.

If it does, then it puts the Ravens in a curious situation. Both running backs are in the final years of their contracts, and both are free agents. Well, which one do you bring back?

In the past, the Ravens have been extremely loyal in re-signing first-round draft picks such as Lewis. But Lewis is in his sixth season and his relentless and reckless running style has had to wear down his body. The theory around the league is that you don't pay a running back for what he has done, but what he will do.

Taylor is in his fourth season as Lewis' understudy. He hasn't taken nearly the punishment Lewis has. He's younger, and he's going to provide some team a fine running back.

It may come down to transition. If the Ravens keep Taylor for next season, they'll have to modify the offense. He's smaller but more versatile than Lewis. He'll need to be in a more diversified offense, with more athletic offensive linemen, just like Priest Holmes when he went to the Kansas City Chiefs.

If Lewis stays, the system can remain status quo (oh no), even though the Ravens know they have to upgrade the talent on the offensive line.

Either way, as for now, the Ravens still have a good 1-2 punch, except No. 2 needs to get more playing time. It can only help until Lewis finds his rhythm, or the Ravens find a passing game.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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