At last, Ray Lewis could rest.
The rookie middle linebacker sat alone on the Ravens' bench yesterday as the final two minutes played out in Baltimore's 19-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders at Memorial Stadium. He leaned back with his helmet off, smiling as his teammates trickled over to congratulate him. It was the most relaxed he had been all afternoon.
Not long before, he was sprinting to either sideline in pursuit of any Raider with the football. He was dropping back in pass coverage, bulling through the line of scrimmage and leading a defensive charge that reversed the game's momentum and the Ravens' fortunes.
As debuts go, this one began slowly for Lewis, but it swelled to a rousing success.
He had two tackles at halftime before finishing as the Ravens' leader with seven solos. The man who was supposed to start wearing down because of his modest size turned up bigger than anyone when it counted most.
"You've got to make plays when you get the opportunity," said defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "That's what Ray did today. He made plays."
It would have been an uneventful first half for the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Lewis, the 26th player taken in the draft, if not for a most unusual play -- one that resulted in his first NFL interception.
A fumble by Earnest Hunter early in the second quarter gave the Raiders possession on Baltimore's 19 with the score tied 7-7. Quarterback Billy Joe Hobert tried to hit Rickey Dudley in the end zone, but his low pass slipped through the rookie tight end's grasp as he was falling, and Lewis pulled in the ball before it touched the ground.
Lewis, who had his back turned when Hobert threw and hadn't seen the ball coming, jumped to his feet as an official signaled a touchback.
"It feels good anytime you make that type of play," Lewis said. "I just really tried to go out and do my responsibilities. When you do that, you usually end up doing right."
Sometimes, you end up feeling wronged.
Lewis took a nasty blow from Raiders halfback Harvey Williams during a third-quarter interception return by the Ravens' Antonio Langham. As Lewis ran downfield in front of Oakland's bench, Williams came across and hit him at the knees, drawing a penalty for an illegal block.
Payback would come early in the fourth quarter. After drilling receiver Daryl Hobbs on a 5-yard completion over the middle, Lewis tackled Williams for a 1-yard loss on third-and-one. The Raiders punted, the Ravens drove 83 yards in eight plays for the go-ahead score, and Oakland didn't get another first down.
"I didn't really think [Williams] was actually going to cut me at first," he said. "When he did, I was surprised. But that's football."
Lewis said he wasn't nervous playing his first regular-season game in front of the biggest gathering ever at Memorial Stadium. "I would just say [I was] prepared. I just tried to come in and do what I do best, and that's play football," he said.
He's also pretty good at whipping the crowd into a frenzy, pumping his fist in the air after a tackle and waving his arms whenever he wanted to turn up the volume.
He was among the last Ravens to leave the field yesterday, and he got one of the loudest ovations. Lewis tossed his gloves into the throng and disappeared into the dugout.
"Anytime you have a crowd like our crowd that hasn't had football in Baltimore for so many years, and when we come in and give them the kind of excitement that we give them, you can't do nothing but be glad," he said.
"Anytime you start riding that train, everything just falls into place. Everybody was just really ready to play."
And no one did it better than Lewis.
Pub Date: 9/02/96