Billick: J. Lewis still No. 1 back

Ravens coach unfazed by veteran's slow start

October 18, 2005|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

Two years removed from being the NFL's most dominant running back, Jamal Lewis is struggling to become the most effective runner in the Ravens' backfield.

The cutbacks have faded. The burst has disappeared. The explosive plays have fizzled.

While Lewis has had trouble breaking through the line of scrimmage, backup Chester Taylor has broken off the biggest runs of the season.

In Sunday's 16-3 win over the Cleveland Browns, Taylor's 92 yards overshadowed Lewis' total of 59. Five games into the season, Taylor has produced 5.8 yards per carry, nearly doubling Lewis' 3.0-yard average.

Despite the disparity in numbers, coach Brian Billick reiterated yesterday that Lewis will remain his workhorse back, saying it was not a "priority" to get Taylor more carries. It was a vote of confidence that seemed more decisive than many of Lewis' runs this season.

"We're very confident when Chester Taylor is in there and we have no hesitation with him," Billick said. "But Jamal Lewis is a force to be reckoned with, and when it's all said and done, he will have a huge impact on our ability to run the ball."

This marks the worst start of Lewis' six-year career. He has managed just 292 yards in five games, an average of 58.4 yards (26th in the NFL).

Lewis has been held below 100 yards in each game, his longest drought since his 2000 rookie season.

Rather than reduce Lewis' carries, Billick suggested that the former NFL Offensive Player of the Year needs more work to break out of his early funk. Lewis is averaging four fewer attempts per game this season than 2003, when he rushed for 2,066 yards.

"What was encouraging was he did some of his best running in the latter part of the game," Billick said. "To that end, getting the ball in Jamal's hands more - which is always a point of interest for everybody - lends itself to the old adage that a back doesn't really get cranked up until he gets to that 20th or 25th run. That may have something to do with it. I like the way Jamal is pushing the ball."

Of his 98 carries this season, Lewis has been stopped at the line of scrimmage eight times and dropped for a loss 17 times. That means 26 percent of his runs have resulted in no gain.

In contrast, Taylor has gained at least 10 yards on seven of his 35 attempts. His 52-yard run on Sunday was the longest offensive play for the Ravens this season.

Some of Lewis' difficulties could be the result of a challenging offseason. He spent four months in prison as part of his federal drug plea bargain, missed all of the Ravens' minicamps and struggled in his recovery from ankle surgery.

Billick said he hasn't seen any change in Lewis' physical presence or running style.

"This is the same guy," Billick said. "What we haven't had is that cutback, breakout big gain."

According to Lewis, the biggest problem has been opposing defenses. When he's in the game, teams stack the line of scrimmage because they know it's going to be a run. When Taylor's in the game, defenses have to keep a safety deeper because the Ravens are more of a threat to pass.

"The yards aren't there, but at the same time, I've got a big target on my chest out there," Lewis said.

The road won't be any easier for Lewis. The Ravens' next two opponents - the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers - rank among the top six defenses against the run.

"[Defenses] are going to be very focused on a Jamal Lewis when he's in the game," Billick said. "Their defensive calls will be dictated by a Jamal Lewis in the game based on what they think we're going to do or the style of runner that they think Jamal might be vs. a Chester Taylor. Will they have to alter that thinking with Chester Taylor? Maybe."

The Ravens acknowledge that they won't be able to keep both running backs after the season. There has been speculation that the Ravens will use the franchise player tag to keep Lewis and let Taylor go as an unrestricted free agent.

At this point, Taylor has given them reason to reconsider which direction to go. He has only 90 fewer yards on the ground than Lewis despite carrying the ball 63 fewer times.

"We're very lucky to have two outstanding backs," Billick said. "We have a great deal of faith in Jamal's continued ability to be one of the better backs in the league, and we'll continue to try to highlight that." jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

A comparison of Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor through five games, with carries, yards and average per carry for each running back:

............................... Lewis ......................... Taylor

Ind. .................... 16-48 3.0 ................ 4-27 6.8

Ten. ..................... 10-9 0.9 ................... 3-5 1.7

NYJ .................... 29-81 2.8 ................. 11-32 2.9

Det. .................... 19-95 5.0 ................... 9-46 5.1

Cle. ....................... 24-59 2.5 ................... 8-92 11.5

Tot. .................... 98-292 3.0 ................ 35-202 5.8

Ravens@Bears Sunday, 4:15 p.m., Ch. 13, 1300 AM, 102.7 FM Line: Bears by 1

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