When Ravens running back Jamal Lewis was asked whether reserves Mike Anderson or Musa Smith are better than he is, he laughed. Then he grew silent for a few seconds, and then chuckled some more. No disrespect, mind you, but Lewis has heard the talk around town about his having lost a step, or not running with power.
So, for the first time this season, Lewis talked extensively about the problems with the team's running game. As feisty as ever, he cited having to adjust to playing without a fullback and to playing with a proven quarterback for the first time.
"I guess it's the case of a guy not getting it done right now," Lewis said. "There are no big runs, no big breakaways, so let's put it on the next guy. People have a right to their own opinion, but I'm a 2,000-yard rusher, and you don't forget how to run the football.
"I'm only 27 years old, and I've got a lot of fight. I'm not going anywhere without fighting."
Talk is one thing, but action is another. Except for the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lewis hasn't looked like his old self. He has rushed 88 times for 311 yards, and hasn't had a carry for more than 8 yards in the past two games.
Anderson ran five times for 31 yards in Denver on Monday night, and Smith has gained 28 yards on five carries in the past two games. Both appeared to hit holes faster and put life into the running game. Lewis looked hesitant and slow, lacking the great acceleration he once had.
Lewis isn't backing away from the issues. Most of Anderson's and Smith's yardage has come in the second half after the Ravens have worn down opponents, when Lewis historically would have been given the ball to dominate. He pointed out that he used to carry 25 to 30 times per game. He has topped 20 carries only once this season.
"I'm not a 13- to 15-carry back. You know that, I know that and the Ravens know that," Lewis said. "I'm the type of back that has to carry the ball about 25 to 30 times a game. In the past, we had a big offensive line and they liked to lean on people. We would pound the ball for 2 or 3 yards a carry in the first half, but then those runs would turn into 5 and 6 yards in the third quarter. By the fourth, you're wearing teams down and that's when you can hit a 30- or 60-yarder.
"That's how we got to the Super Bowl in my first year. People are asking, `Where is the old Jamal?' He's out there, just not getting into the flow. I've got to get enough carries to get a feel for the game. I'm no different than a quarterback or a wide receiver, where you have to work into a flow."
The Ravens have no offensive identity. On some days, they're a running team. On others, they want balance. They wanted to run the ball against Denver, but abandoned the strategy in the third quarter by passing on seven of the team's first 10 plays despite the score being 3-3. Twenty-four of Anderson's yards came on three straight carries to open the fourth quarter.
"Must have been something we saw," Lewis said about the Ravens getting away from the running game. "At first, we started off the game running and I thought this was going to be all right. When it was 3-3, I thought we were ready to roll, but things started slipping away. I know Denver's defense. They've got a lot of heart, and they play hard. But you've got to keep pounding them, and they'll wear down. The problem with our running game is not there just for me to figure out, but to figure out as a team."
The Ravens have tried to achieve more balance since Lewis rushed for 2,066 yards in 2003. When they signed quarterback Steve McNair, that pretty much ensured the transition from the I-formation with the fullback as a lead blocker to using more formations with an H-back. The Ravens waived fullback Alan Ricard, Lewis' close friend, before training camp, leaving the team without a true lead blocker.
Lewis has always been in the I-formation, going back to his college days at Tennessee.
"We started to move in that direction last year so that we weren't so one-dimensional," Lewis said. "It's no one's fault, we just wanted more balance. More teams are using an H-back around the league. I've had to make an adjustment. I've had to run with one less person leading the way, and one more person in the way."
Maybe Ravens coach Brian Billick is giving Lewis an adjustment period, or maybe he's sticking with Lewis out of loyalty. The Ravens have gotten a lot of mileage out of that big body since 2000.
But Lewis smiles when you talk about the old days. There was nothing pretty about the Ravens' style, just a few running plays that allowed Lewis to pick his hole or cut back. It was always fun watching Lewis punish some cornerback as he bounced outside. Once his shoulder pads were parallel to the line of scrimmage, Lewis was the game's most punishing runner.
Lewis said it can be that way again, but there has to be a commitment.
"Back then, our scheme was more like the Pittsburgh Steelers', where we ran about 35 times a game, and passed about 20," Lewis said. "We have decided, right or wrong, that we couldn't do that forever. We brought in Steve McNair, and he is a great quarterback. He has won a lot of games and has a great arm, so we're trying to find a balance.
"I have no injuries, and I feel good. I believe this offensive line is just as good as in the past, and we can still wear people down. These guys can come at you and knock you off the ball. If that's what we decided to do, then I'm OK with it. If not, I'll do whatever they ask. We have to get this done as a team."