Slimmer R. Lewis likes fit of new 46


Watching Ray Lewis sprint from sideline to sideline, it was evident that the theme of the Ravens middle linebacker's offseason had been shedding some pounds and regaining his freedom.

Lewis' new look and attitude coincided with his first exposure to the Ravens' 46 defense, one designed to keep the blockers off the seven-time Pro Bowl player and allow him to hunt down running backs without being harassed.

"To come into camp and have my defensive coordinator tell me you're not to be touched, I'm like a little kid all over again," Lewis said after the Ravens opened their mandatory four-day minicamp yesterday. "That's what I do. I don't try to bash people and try to get to the football. I get to the running back. No running back wants to face me in this league, and they know that."

Running backs had less to fear with Lewis in a 3-4 defense (three linemen and four linebackers), an alignment used the past three seasons under coordinator Mike Nolan, who left to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

Lewis had to fight through more blockers to reach the ball carrier, limiting the effectiveness of Lewis as well as the entire Ravens run defense.

Although the Ravens ranked eighth against the run last season, they allowed running backs to eclipse 100 yards four times. In the previous four seasons, they had permitted just eight 100-yard rushers (five came in 2002).

"It's tough because you have to humble yourself and you have to do whatever the coaches tell you to do," Lewis said. "Whether it takes away from your game or whether it helps your game, you deal with it. That's what I did.

"It didn't alter how I prepared and didn't alter my passion for the game. But at the same time, it alters how dominant I can really be in this game."

With first-year coordinator Rex Ryan converting to the 46 defense, offenses won't be able to isolate blocks on Lewis as in recent years because the Ravens' new scheme stacks eight players near the line of scrimmage.

It's the same philosophy used in 2000, when Lewis was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.

"It fits Ray and his expertise in the middle," coach Brian Billick said. "I would think he's very excited about the potential this holds."

Another change for Lewis was his offseason routine.

Instead of jumping back into workouts three weeks after the season ended, Lewis took two months off, staying away from "anything dealing with football."

But during that time, talk surfaced about Lewis trying to work out a new contract. It has been rumored that he is seeking a $50 million signing bonus.

Lewis, 30, signed a $50 million deal in 2002 that included a then-record $19 million signing bonus. The Ravens are unlikely to negotiate an extension because he has four years remaining on his current deal, which will pay him $5.5 million in 2005 and 2006 and $6.5 million in 2007 and 2008.

"There is an appropriate time to talk about everything," Lewis said, "and now is not the time to speak about a contract."

Asked when is the right time, he responded, "Whenever they feel the time is. I don't have nothing to say about it."

Lewis equally downplayed his slimmer physique.

But it's logical that he didn't need to bulk up as much because he won't need to battle offensive linemen as much this season. Ryan even joked recently that Lewis doesn't need to be as big as a nose guard this year.

"I never had to change anything," Lewis said. "The scheme had to change. The scheme's got to fit your players.

"My thing is bashing running backs. That's what I want to get back to -- having fun, and let them deal with me. That's what the 46 defense does."

NOTES: Jury selection was completed yesterday for Terrell Suggs' trial in Phoenix, Ariz. The Ravens linebacker has been charged on two counts of felony aggravated assault. Opening arguments are scheduled for tomorrow. ... Kicker Matt Stover and nickel back Deion Sanders were excused for personal reasons. Sanders, who signed with the team last week, is expected to return to practice today, according to Billick. ... The Ravens ended practice with a series of wind sprints, which included Billick's running last among the offensive and defensive linemen. He sat out the last couple of rounds, a fact that didn't go unnoticed by his players. "Brian, this message is for you: Start working out; stop playing racquetball. I'll see you at 8:30 in the morning," said linebacker Adalius Thomas, who added, "I don't think he [Billick] made it to the seventh round, so [Mike] Tyson got him by a mile. But hopefully he will run again, unlike Tyson." ... Wide receiver Mark Clayton (hamstring) and defensive end Tony Weaver (leg) did not practice. Weaver likely will be held out for the rest of the minicamp.

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