Ravens sink, but Lewis still on top

The Baltimore Sun

Shortly after the Ravens' playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts last season, middle linebacker Ray Lewis was in the locker room crying. The outpour was so strong, he had trouble breathing.

Nearly 45 minutes after the Ravens' loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, Lewis made a quick exit from the locker room. Sweat poured off his face, and he clearly was having trouble with his emotions.

"The heat and passion are still there," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "The anger of losing keeps the fire burning inside."

Lewis, in his 12th year, has played well this season. He has been in the zone the past couple of games. We've all seen the gradual decline in his skills during the past few seasons, but Lewis has been playing like the Lewis of old, instead of like an old Lewis.

In Sunday's game, Lewis was in on 23 tackles. Several times, he ran stride for stride across the middle with Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards.

There were times he went head-to-head with Jamal Lewis in some violent collisions. He returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown and horse-collared running backs with one hand.

And I kept asking myself: Where did he find the fountain of youth?

Ryan said Lewis is kicking butt all over the field.

"He has the drive of the young guys and still loves to play the game," the coach said. "It's like he is happy to be playing, but miserable to be losing. He's telling these guys with his play, 'Let's go.' "

Lewis isn't the physical specimen he was in 2000 when he might have had the best season of any middle linebacker to play the game. He still has the broad shoulders and the bulging chest, but those thick hips and thighs are gone.

Now, it's just guile and speed, and a new love affair with the two tackles in front of him, Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg, who have become the Ravens' modern-day version of Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa.

Like Adams and Siragusa, Ngata and Gregg keep opposing offensive linemen away from Lewis. It's a deep romance. It's the reason Ngata punched Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas in the face Sunday while Thomas was on the ground.

He felt Thomas was unfairly holding Lewis and taking unnecessary shots at him when Edwards fumbled in the first quarter.

Ngata had had enough. No one gets free shots at No. 52, the Ravens' meal ticket.

"There's a lot of pride with those guys," Ryan said. "Haloti was taking up for his guy. They're not going to let people take shots at Ray. But you knew it was something because Haloti is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet."

But it's not just the scheme that has Lewis playing well again. Sad to say, losing has played a major part as well. Lewis despises getting beat more than just about anything.

Lewis figures if he takes his game to another level, the others will follow. We've seen this act before, in 2000, when Lewis was the most intimidating force in the NFL and willed the Ravens to the Super Bowl title.

He's trying to work some of the same magic, only this time to break a four-game losing streak.

It has become personal. Having a great defense is part of the Ravens' tradition. When people think of the Ravens, they think of Ray Lewis. He doesn't want his name to be synonymous with losing.

"It's amazing the way he is playing when you think about it," Ryan said. "He's been in the league 12 years, running sideline to sideline and throwing his body around.

"We have him as the middle linebacker in a 4-3, and then we ask him to also play a 3-4. He never comes off the field. We ask him to line people up and make certain calls. What more can we ask him to do?"

The Ravens have another major assignment this week. Lewis has to match up against San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Lewis prides himself in those one-on-one matchups.

Quietly this season, he has slipped back into the picture as one of the game's best middle linebackers. Certainly, he is having a better year than the NFL's defensive golden boy, the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher.

Lewis' biggest problem, though, is that he set a standard for the position in his prime, a standard that neither he nor anyone else might ever meet again.

But at least this season, it's fun watching him climb back close to the top again.


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