While running back Jamal Lewis has proved he can carry the football, the Ravens would prefer him not to carry the offense just yet.
Going against the Carolina Panthers, who had the NFL's worst run defense last season, the Ravens are committed to getting a running start to the season after watching Lewis' powerful return this preseason. The Ravens, though, have to remind themselves that Lewis is just one year removed from season-ending knee surgery and has carried the ball only nine times since the Super Bowl in January 2001.
That's why the Ravens want to give Lewis a maximum of only 20 carries in Sunday's season opener at Carolina and hand off the rest of the workload to backup Chester Taylor. But there's a chance that number of carries could increase if the need for Lewis increases.
"You theoretically talk about easing into it, but when the competitive juices flow on Sunday, I'm going to be in there, saying, 'Give it to him the 28th time, give it to him the 29th time,' " Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "But we've got to be smart to make sure that he doesn't fatigue and put himself at risk. That's where I have to use my judgment as a coach. He's going to tell you he's fine. But I'm still going to worry."
As a rookie, Lewis carried the ball 25 times a game in the second half of the 2000 season when he became the focal point of a ball-control offense. But after Lewis blew out his left knee in last year's training camp, the Ravens have paced their workhorse in two preseason cameos, giving him four carries in one game and five in another.
"I think I can take as much as he wants to give it to me," Lewis said. "Realistically, maybe 25 to 30 times a game. It's really seeing how it holds up and making sure it doesn't get fatigued going through the game. I'm willing to take on whatever I have to do."
Lewis represents the key to the offense.
The Ravens have lost their two top receivers and have a first-year starter in Chris Redman at quarterback. If Lewis can deliver that same grinding ground game, defenses would be forced to stack the line of scrimmage, giving Redman a better chance to throw over the top.
Asked how much pressure would be taken off Redman if Lewis can return to form, Billick said: "Whatever that factor is, multiply by 10 because that's truly what you're dealing with right now. I've never been one to believe that you have to establish the run in order to throw the ball. But for us, in particular with Chris Redman, a typical successful scenario would be one where we can establish the run; that will allow Chris to do more things in the passing game."
Redman believes having Lewis full time will alter the perception many have of the Ravens' starting offense, which failed to score a touchdown in the preseason.
"I think it's scary once he gets into a flow," Redman said. "When he gets out there, that's when our dimensions really show up as far as the run and pass balance."
Lewis' presence doesn't solely affect Redman.
His bulldozing running style carries over to the offensive line, which thrives on run-blocking. Three linemen - center Mike Flynn and tackles Jonathan Ogden and Edwin Mulitalo - remain from Super Bowl XXXV, when they cleared the way for Lewis' 102-yard performance.
The Ravens will find out whether the Panthers have fixed their run defense.
Last season, Carolina allowed 143.8 yards a game as opponents held the ball for 32 1/2 minutes a game, also a league worst. Teams were never forced to throw the ball, running 521 times and passing 536.
Carolina has changed part of its front seven, switching Dan Morgan to middle linebacker and surrounding him with two different linebackers. New Panthers defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, the former linebackers coach with the Ravens, has stressed fundamentals.
"I think the essence of the NFL is being able to run and stopping the run," said John Fox, Carolina's new head coach. "As you develop that attitude, I think that shows a lot about your team. We tried to develop that in camp, and I think we have made strides in that way."
But Lewis is determined to show that he, too, has made strides.
"Right now, I'm really better than a lot of people think I am," Lewis said. "Outside of the Ravens, a lot of people think coming back from an injury that my knee will be tender or soft. But all in all, it's great and I'm cutting good. I'm ready to put it all together against Carolina."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Carolina Panthers in season opener for both teams
Site: Ericsson Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)
Line: Ravens by 2NFL 2002 section
Preview: An in-depth look at the new season, with a focus on the overhauled Ravens and realigned NFL. [Section R]