Ravens' J. Lewis looks for holes

The Baltimore Sun

Was the stout run defense the Indianapolis Colts displayed against the Kansas City Chiefs just a wild-card weekend anomaly?

Jamal Lewis no longer can put up the mammoth numbers he did during his historic 2003 season, but can he at least regain a bit of the burst he displayed as a rookie, when he helped carry the Ravens to the title in the January 2001 Super Bowl?

Those questions are crucial to tomorrow's AFC playoff game at M&T; Bank Stadium.

"Yes, [the Colts] played well last week," Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said, "but that's not a reason for us just to say, 'Let's throw all over the field because they stopped the run.'

"That's not what they do. They get after the passer, don't let anybody fool you. They rush the passer and they play the run on the way to the quarterback, and we've got to utilize that."

Before it stuffed Larry Johnson, Indianapolis had the worst run defense in the NFL. The Ravens were 25th out of 32 teams in rushing, but they led the league in time of possession, and not just because of their take-away defense and Steve McNair's ability to sustain a drive.

Lewis' 314 carries were the second most of his career, surpassed only in 2003, when he gained 2,066 yards and was the NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Then, he averaged 5.3 yards and was held under 100 four times. This year, he reached the 100-yard mark just twice and averaged 3.6.

After the 2005 season, Chester Taylor signed a free-agent contract with the Minnesota Vikings, and the Ravens brought in Mike Anderson to complement Lewis and Musa Smith.

Smith is injured, done for the season. Anderson got all of 39 carries. Taylor gained just 84 yards more than Lewis' 1,132.

McNair's pocket awareness isn't the only reason the Ravens set a franchise record for fewest sacks. Lewis might not get through a hole as quickly as he used to, but he's working behind a line that appears better equipped to protect the passer than run-block.

Lewis has more carries than McNair has completions. Last month alone, he quieted the crowd in Kansas City, had a season-long 52-yard run against the Cleveland Browns and bruised the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Lewis wasn't as fulfilled in mid-October, as he totaled 39 carries in Jim Fassel's last three games as offensive coordinator. In the first game that Brian Billick called plays, he got a season-high 31 carries.

"Like I said before, it's a confidence issue," Lewis said. "We're confident that he's calling the right plays and putting us in the right position."

Few 27-year-olds have put in as much mileage as Lewis, who has a keen understanding why the Ravens' offense needs to keep Peyton Manning off the field. When Manning was a senior at the University of Tennessee in 1997, Lewis was the first true freshman in school history to gain 1,000 yards.

Three seasons later, Lewis became just the second rookie to rush for 1,000 yards for a Super Bowl champion. He missed 2001 with a knee injury, ran wild in 2003, then was stalled by more injury and his criminal conduct.

In 2005, Lewis underwent ankle surgery and spent four months in prison on federal drug charges, then failed to gain 1,000 yards for the first time since the season he spent on injured reserve.

Six years between Super Bowl rings would surpass the longevity of many NFL backs, and Lewis knows that dream may hinge on his ability to probe the Colts' vulnerability.

"They have a unique front," Lewis said of the Colts and their sack-masters, Dwight Freeney and 245-pound Robert Mathis. "I wouldn't call them light defensive ends, but they're fast and they can get up the field. They're what they are, they're pass-rushers."

The Colts' defense, meanwhile, needs more of the attitude it displayed against the Chiefs.

"That's the way you hope to play every week," coach Tony Dungy said during a teleconference Tuesday. "We'll be tested again. We've got another Pro Bowl running back in Lewis and that big offensive line, so we'll have a bigger test this week than we had last week."


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