R. Lewis is back on the field and in position to lead again

August 18, 2006|By RICK MAESE

R. Lewis is back on the field and in position to lead again

They shot through the fake smoke and out of the tunnel. Wide receiver Clarence Moore was at the front of the pack, but mostly, they came out together.

Somewhere in there jogged the most eager player in pads, and whether Ray Lewis knew it or not, everything he did over the next 90 minutes was about to be put under the microscope. None of it was designed to tell us definitively what the regular season might hold, but all of it provided enough of a glimpse.

In a game that meant nothing, Lewis and his actions meant everything.

If the Ravens' first preseason game was focused on introducing new quarterback Steve McNair to a rabid fan base, last night's was all about welcoming Lewis back into the fold.

"It felt great," he said when it was all over.

When we had last seen Lewis on a football field in pads - nearly 10 months ago - he was pouting as if a bully had just stolen his ball and ran away.

The Lewis who ran out of the tunnel last night, though, looked like the one who not long ago led not just a defense, but an entire city. Until the end of the first half, Lewis looked like just another jersey.

But that's not what we really needed to see last night.

Lewis is still a central part of this defensive unit because of the energy and passion he brings. We needed to see if he still had it and if it was still contagious.

As much as McNair is being praised as the team's savior this season, the return of Lewis is nearly as important. Though each star is aging and each has battled recent injuries, both are leaders of their respective units, and both have Super Bowl experience. That's key because if the two stay healthy, their mere presence could propel this team to something big.

It didn't take long for Lewis to make his presence known last night. Though the team has temporarily quashed the pre-game player introductions and the dancing, hopping and whooping that came along with it, Lewis quickly emerged from the mass of purple.

He paced the sideline and you could tell that he was eager to get in there and play. For last week's preseason opener, Lewis showed some excitement, but he did it wearing street clothes.

On the field, Lewis was hardly a force last night, usually lost in the mix and several times stifled by an extra blocker. But he was the first to congratulate Terrell Suggs when the defensive end sacked Donovan McNabb in the first quarter. It's these small things that make Lewis the leader that he is.

After Lewis' disappearing act last season, followed by his offseason moaning, it would have been easy for his teammates to have turned on him. But during training camp, he won them back. He reclaimed his position as their captain.

On the sideline last night, Lewis was the life of the party. He huddled with teammates, paced back and forth and fluttered about like the bench was an energy-drink convention. He clapped when Jamal Lewis ran for a first down, and pumped his fists and shouted as the Ravens' offense flirted with the red zone.

And just so no one left M&T Bank Stadium thinking that Lewis had been reduced to a motivational speaker, he finally did something on defense other than congratulate his teammates.

With less than two minutes to play in the first half, McNabb hit Reno Mahe for an 11-yard pass, and Lewis followed up with his first tackle of the game. He wrapped his arms around the Eagles tailback, using his left hand to pop the ball loose. Suggs recovered it in Philadelphia territory, giving the Ravens one more shot at the scoreboard before the half.

"Adalius Thomas came to me and said, `We need you to make a play,' and as soon as he said that, I went out there on that third down and I made a play," Lewis said. "I just really feel confident and when I went back there and I grabbed the back of the jersey, I said, `Swipe, just swipe.'

"It felt so good because my crowd got energized again. My defense was rejuvenated. It's just good to be back on the football field."

He didn't return to the game, but he didn't really need to. Lewis made his point: Ray's back. His teammates already knew, the fans had a feeling and now the rest of the league knows, too.

Looking back, it was wise of Ravens management to barely flinch when Lewis talked about a trade, and it's equally smart for Lewis to have abandoned his frustrations and grievances so quickly.

Last season must've been humbling for Lewis to watch the Ravens defense continue without him and still finish as one of the league's top units.

The national prognosticators are saying that the addition of just one more player - McNair - instantly made the Ravens a playoff contender once again.

And they're right.

But to challenge for something more, to return the Ravens to the Super Bowl, the return of Lewis, as prickly as he is passionate, could prove to be just as important.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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