Think Ray Lewis is past his NFL prime at 31? In some ways, he's just getting started, he says

Staring down the future

January 28, 2007|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,Sun Reporter

For one of next Sunday's Super Bowl teams, the formula for reaching the title game has been a swarming, opportunistic defense led by an inspirational linebacker.

Of course, that would be the Chicago Bears and Brian Urlacher.

It could easily have been the Ravens and Ray Lewis.

Last week, Lewis received word that he'll be headed to his eighth Pro Bowl. As the first alternate at his position, Lewis will be replacing the Denver Broncos' injured Al Wilson in Hawaii.

The Ravens' fiery inside linebacker is the first to point out that the Pro Bowl distinction, while an honor, is something of a consolation prize.

"The saddest thing in the world is to be at that Pro Bowl and having a good time and drinking a mai tai and watching a Super Bowl champion walk over. That's a little different swagger," Lewis said. "I've [been] there both ways [and] I promise you, their [mai tais ] taste a little bit better."

After a 13-3 regular season, the Ravens' playoff loss to the other Super Bowl team, the Indianapolis Colts, was a sour dram for all the Ravens to swallow, but especially so for Lewis. After all, next season will be his 12th in the NFL.

"He's on the latter part of his career, so it's all about winning for him," said fellow linebacker Adalius Thomas, a Pro Bowl selection as a starter. "Now, he's about teaching other guys how to see things."

Thomas' reflection sums up Lewis' evolution. Although still the Ravens' lion king on defense, he's more apt to be leading his teammates on the hunt rather than attacking by himself. Formerly the archetypal middle linebacker, Lewis has embraced his shifting role within a defense that was the most difficult in the NFL for opposing teams to prepare for.

In part, that's the result of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's complex, swirling scheme that produced the NFL's top-rated defense in 2006.

"Ray has become a puzzle piece in a very effective defense rather than the singular entity that drives the defense," said Greg Cosell, executive producer of NFL Films' NFL Matchup, a highly analytical dissection of pro football tactics.

In Ryan's approach, players break out of their positional stereotypes. Linemen wind up in coverage. Linebackers become safeties. Anyone might blitz.

"We just don't sit in a base 4-3 [alignment] anymore. I can go from a middle linebacker to a strong safety to a rush defensive end to a defensive tackle," Lewis said. "Rex is moving me around so much, people can't just put their hands on me."

But while the role might change, the player doesn't.

"What you can't discount about Ray are his instincts," Cosell said. "What makes a player great are his instincts. Ray may not get there quite as fast as he used to, but he knows what he's seeing and he can get people lined up."

A shift in style

That there is more sage and a little less rage in the 31-year-old Lewis is felt by those close to him.

Keon Lattimore, Lewis' younger brother and a running back for the University of Maryland, says he has noticed some of the changes. Lewis has been as much guardian as brother to Lattimore.

"The lectures that he used to give have become talks, full-blown conversations," Lattimore said. "If I have a problem, he's still the first person I'm going to go to. But I think now, if he has a problem, he'll come to me about it."

As Thomas said, Lewis sees himself as a locker room mentor.

"It shows how comfortable you are with who you are," Thomas said of Lewis, a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible. "Nobody is bigger than the game. The game continues to go on - with or without you, no matter how big your name is. So you want to pass on that education and perhaps you can teach some young guy not to make the mistakes that you made."

On a football field in November, Lewis - in full throat - was making Thomas' point.

But rather than steeling the Ravens for a defensive stand in boisterous M&T Bank Stadium, Lewis was preaching to the wide-eyed Dunbar High football team in the East Baltimore twilight.

Lewis encouraged, challenged, cajoled and mapped out how the players should prepare for a big game, day by day, hour by hour. Going to class, practice, working out, praying, even drinking enough water, Lewis spelled it out in detail. Manage your time wisely, Lewis was saying, and you'll manage your life.

"If you don't do that, everything will catch up to you because there's just too much going on to distract you," Lewis said recently when reminded of his talk to the Dunbar kids. "When I leave [practice], I meet with my personal trainer, we got pushups, we got sit-ups. After that, I call my kids. After I call my kids, then I have my [football] film study. After my film study, I might catch a quick movie for an hour." Then it's to sleep.

He admits to a regimentation that borders on obsession. "My mother will tell you, don't ever get me out of my schedule," Lewis said. "I give my family my time but I need my schedule. At home, if a shoe is out of place, if my bed isn't made right, I'm like, `No!' "

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