Ja. Lewis will get running start


The Jamal Lewis era begins today for the Ravens, resplendent in promise, awash with expectation.

The big-back attack officially arrives at PSINet Stadium with the 1 p.m. kickoff against the Cincinnati Bengals, five months after the Ravens made the one-time Tennessee standout the fifth pick in the draft.

The 5-foot-11, 231-pound Lewis will be expected to supply spark for an offense that never reached the end zone in a Miami monsoon last week.

"He gives us a big, powerful back who can take it the distance," said tight end Shannon Sharpe. "He's progressed real nicely. ... We have not played together as an offensive unit, and that's most disappointing."

Lewis' formal appointment as lead back - he started last week's loss to the Dolphins - means that both of the team's first-round picks in April are now in the starting lineup. Wide receiver Travis Taylor, the 10th pick in the draft, has started all three games.

It also means the Ravens (2-1) have five starters on offense who weren't starting a year ago.

"I think we have the potential to get better with every week, to continue to grow together as a team," coach Brian Billick said when asked about the state of his offense. "We're not quite there yet. And so I expect a lot more development and growth and efficiency out of this offense than we have right now."

Youth on offense could qualify as the theme of the day. The bottom-feeding Bengals (0-2) counter with wide receiver Peter Warrick, the fourth pick in the draft, and quarterback Akili Smith, the third pick a year ago.

Warrick has been either spectacular (eight catches, 19.4-yard average gain) or erratic (five drops), and Smith (.393 completion percentage, 12 sacks) has struggled behind a leaky offensive line.

Smith has lost five of his six starts for the Bengals.

"You have to look at it as his rookie year," Billick said of Smith's difficulties. "And he's going through the growing pains, but he's showing some real signs."

Ravens wide-out Qadry Ismail is past the pain of his sprained left knee and will return to the lineup today after missing two games. That's a good sign for quarterback Tony Banks, who missed his go-to receiver.

What Banks won't miss is the predominant zone defense he's seen the past three weeks. The Bengals have switched from a 3-4 defensive alignment to the 4-3 this season.

"They leave the receivers outside a little more singled-up than what we've seen the first three games, so hopefully, we'll be able to attack outside and make those guys pay outside," Banks said. "It's nice to finally get a team that's not always in zone."

So far, Banks has thrown more completions to his running backs (26) than downfield to his wide-outs (23). Lewis figures to get his share today when he isn't protecting Banks' back side.

Asked about Lewis' introduction into the offense, Banks said, "Well, if he gets his protections down, no complaints from me."

"He's the quarterback. I'm the rookie just coming in," Lewis said. "He'll probably be a little hesitant, because he's got a young guy watching his back. I've got to take care of him. That's my main responsibility in pass protection. I'll do that. It's not brain surgery."

It's Lewis' explosiveness once he has the ball - and his size - that vaulted him past Priest Holmes on the depth chart, though.

"I think having a bigger back there is going to give us a lot of options," said left guard Edwin Mulitalo. "Because once we get him through that first wave, I feel confident that no one can stop him."

Right guard Mike Flynn seconded that notion. "How he helps us is by being 230 pounds," Flynn said. "He can take a lick and get us 3, 4 yards. Another thing he can do is break a tackle. The guy's got game-breaking speed."

And big expectations placed on him against a stubborn Cincinnati run defense that is giving up 94.5 yards a game and 3.0 a carry this season.

"I expect him to be physical," Billick said of Lewis. "I expect a constant positive gain. I think he has that capability. At the minimum, you hope the running game gets you to second-and-seven, or third-and-four. Because regardless of whether there's a hole there or not, no matter how well they played it, he still gets 2 yards, he still gets 3 yards, because of his strength."

In what will be the Ravens' last home game until Oct. 22, when they face Tennessee, their defense also wants a piece of redemption after the Miami loss.

"The defense didn't perform as well as we could have, and this week our defense really has to come through," said defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. "We're playing at home, and we're not going to be here for awhile. We've got two wins under our belt, and we want this game.

"It's a big game for us. As much as people are downplaying this game, we're preparing like this is the Super Bowl."

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