Ravens focus on J. Lewis linkup; Putting ball in hands of breakaway threat priority vs. Steelers


Jermaine Lewis cannot remember playing in a football game without getting his hands on the ball. Until last week, that is.

It happened -- or failed to happen -- in the Ravens' season-opening, 27-10 loss in St. Louis. Lewis started at wide receiver, as he has regularly since the 1997 season, and did not catch a pass. It got worse on punt-return duty, with the Rams' Rick Tuten sending punt after punt out of bounds. Once again, Lewis never had a chance to make a play.

The Ravens better hope that situation changes tomorrow if they intend to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in their home opener.

The Ravens have a variety of shortcomings to fix on offense. They need to establish a running game, after rushing just 14 times in St. Louis. They need a sharp performance from quarterback Scott Mitchell, whose 1999 season got off to a shaky beginning against the Rams. They need to capitalize on turnovers.

And they need to get the ball to Lewis, preferably early and often.

"Every game plan that I have will have a section that says 'How do I get the ball to Jermaine Lewis?' " coach Brian Billick said. "We took a half-dozen shots at Jermaine last week, trying to get it done. It didn't happen for a number of reasons."

Part of the reason was the Rams were effective in double coverage on Lewis. Part of the problem was Mitchell struggled to get him the ball. Part of the problem was wide-out Patrick Johnson -- maybe the fastest player on the team after Lewis -- sat out the Rams game with a sore calf muscle.

"That was a first, and it was frustrating for me," Lewis said. "Of course, I wanted to get involved. We've just got to get together as agroup, from receivers to offensive line to the quarterback. In a perfect world, I'll get a touchdown on the first catch [tomorrow]."

Since the opening day of training camp, Billick has preached the importance of his offense being explosive. At 5 feet 7, Lewis is the Ravens' smallest player but also stands out as their time bomb.

Four of his 36 career punt returns have gone for touchdowns, and he has averaged an impressive 12.3 yards per return, fifth in league history.

His 12.7-yard return average and two touchdowns in 1998 were enough to get Lewis selected to his first Pro Bowl.

During the past two seasons, Lewis established himself as a receiver after terrorizing the Atlantic Coast Conference at Maryland in the mid-1990s.

In 1997, Lewis ranked fifth in the NFL with 2,025 combined yards. Last season, paired with Michael Jackson, Lewis became the smallest go-to guy in the NFL by averaging a whopping 19.1 yards a catch on 41 receptions, six for touchdowns. Five of those touchdowns covered 64, 58, 56, 73 and 46 yards.

The Ravens felt Lewis was explosive enough last year to sign him to a contract extension that will keep him in Baltimore through 2003.

Lewis would like to produce some return on that investment, starting tomorrow. The earlier, the better.

"You have to get established early," Lewis said. "Last week, we didn't have any momentum early, and when we came onto the field after halftime, we still didn't have any momentum."

Lewis thinks the addition of Johnson, who practiced all week and looks recovered from his calf problem, should loosen up the Steelers' defense and benefit both of them.

"Anytime you have speed on the field like that, defenses are thinking," Lewis said.

Said Billick: "The more speed on the field, the better. Patrick has yet to play in a regular-season game, where people are rolling coverages to him or doubling him. [The Steelers] have to respect their speed at some point."

NOTES: Billick said a decision to activate backup offensive lineman James Atkins (hamstring) might not be made until game time. Atkins has practiced this week for the first time in nearly five weeks. The Steelers have two players who were part of the Baltimore Stallions' Grey Cup championship team in 1995. They are punter Josh Miller and backup offensive tackle Shar Pourdanesh.

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