When the Ravens drafted former University of Maryland standout receiver Jermaine Lewis in the fifth round this year, they envisioned a breakaway threat who could transform their return game.
It has taken Lewis one month to energize the Ravens' special teams. In four games, he returned two punts for touchdowns, including an 83-yarder against Buffalo in which he temporarily lost his balance. Still, the Bills never came close to catching him. Lewis averaged 27.9 yards on nine punt returns.
The question is, how long before teams simply punt the ball out of bounds, rather than risk the wrath of Lewis?
"He was only one guy away from breaking two more the other night [in Buffalo]," said special teams leader Bennie Thompson, who said during training camp that Lewis would return at least five punts for scores during the regular season. "He is so much better at setting up his blocks now, and that speed. He can cut without losing any of it. I'm telling you, he's the next Mel Gray."
If Lewis lives up to expectations, the Ravens will enjoy a lot of excellent field position in 1996.
But Lewis is just one part of a special teams unit that may turn out to be the best in the AFC. First-year receiver Ray Ethridge also brings blazing speed to the return game. Second-year running back Earnest Hunter averaged 25.1 yards on nine kickoff returns in the preseason.
The kicking game is solid. Veteran Matt Stover enters the regular season with the highest field-goal accuracy (80.6 percent) in the history of the league. He converted on six of seven attempts in the preseason.
Punter Greg Montgomery is back after taking a year off, and he is gradually assuming the form that helped him make the Pro Bowl in 1993 and average 43.7 yards over seven seasons.
The coverage teams, with Thompson leading the way, should be solid.
"Teams have to respect what these guys have done, not just Jermaine, but the 10 guys who are blocking for him," special teams coach Scott O'Brien said. "In return and coverage, we've given ourselves good field position, and we've got plenty to improve on."
Strengths: Jermaine Lewis' speed, Matt Stover's right foot.
Weaknesses: A tendency to break down occasionally in kick coverage, and punter Greg Montgomery still needs a little time to get rid of the rust brought on by his layoff.
Keys to success: Give Lewis a little room to run. That's all he needs. Give Stover a field-goal opportunity from inside 40 yards, where he's automatic.
Pub Date: 8/31/96