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Still going strong

The Baltimore Sun

Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson was having a conversation with several others about NFL veterans when linebacker Ray Lewis' name was mentioned.

And Johnson, like the others in his group, started shaking his head in disbelief.

"What is this, his 13th year or something?" Johnson said. "He is still explosive and still has great instinct. He is going strong when other players his age are slowing down. I don't think he is ever going to slow down. I hope not."

He hasn't slowed down this year. In fact, he looks a lot like the Ray Lewis who was about to enter his prime in 1999. Lewis, 33, had a great season last year when he had 120 tackles and earned a ninth trip to the Pro Bowl.

Right now, he looks better than last season. He looks better than he has the past five years. What gives?

"It's getting to the point with Ray where it's almost ridiculous," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "He's a phenom. His contact and tackling is as crisp and as good as I can remember. He is still flying around and is always in the right spots. If I had to describe one thing about Ray that stands out I couldn't because he is the total package."

In four games this season, Lewis has 30 tackles, including 21 solo. He has knocked down four passes and forced one fumble. If you're thinking about throwing a pass in the flat, forget it because Lewis is eating up everything.

Draws don't work, and neither do screens. Lewis is even putting running backs in the hospital again (see the Pittsburgh Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall) like he did in 2000 when he train-wrecked Jerome Bettis, Corey Dillon and Eddie George.

"When I first got here, I was star-struck by Ray," said Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, the team's first-round pick in 2006. "You see him on TV, and it's exciting because he plays with so much passion. And since I've been here, he hasn't changed. He plays with so much emotion, and everybody else just follows him."

On the field, though, it's Lewis who sometimes follows Ngata. The former University of Oregon standout has been a major reason Lewis' play has improved the past three seasons. Ngata is a defensive lineman who plays like an offensive lineman.

Ngata doesn't just hold up offensive linemen, keeping them away from Lewis. He also moves them out of the way and creates lanes for Lewis, who looks like a running back coming through gaping holes.

No wonder Lewis lobbied Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome for a big defensive tackle several years ago.

"That big old rascal is just coming into his own," Ryan said of Ngata. "He just doesn't move people; he moves them with one hand."

Lewis is better with Ngata, but we're still seeing the vintage Lewis, as well. He is running sideline to sideline stalking running backs and tight ends (see the Cleveland Browns' Kellen Winslow). His fast pace on the field is matched by his intensity in the huddle.

"Ray talks a lot on the field," Ngata said. "He is always trying to find the pulse, whether we're too calm or too excited. He has a way of ramping us up each day, getting us ready for Sunday."

Lewis' workouts are legendary. He still runs that hill at Oregon Ridge with a log on his back. He is constantly in the sauna or whirlpool and always is stretching, which helps to cut down on injuries.

It's amazing he has suffered few major injuries throughout his career. It's just as incredible that he hasn't slowed down much despite his reckless style and the way he abuses his body.

But a major part of Lewis' game is intimidation. Psychologically, he can scare opponents before the game starts.

"I was pretty intimidated by him, and I was on his team," Johnson said.

So far, it has been a near perfect season for Lewis. During training camp when new coach John Harbaugh was trying to establish a presence with his players, there were veterans who were slow to believe in him. Lewis could have been one of them and led a small revolt. After all, he was a veteran, and he didn't need long meetings and a lot of contact in practices.

Instead, Lewis didn't balk and was always one of the first on the field. He didn't complain, and he even scolded some of those who did.

"It's great to have the opportunity to coach a football team that Ray Lewis is on," Harbaugh said. "Just watching practice, you see why he is one of the all-time greats, why he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer and why he believes he has a lot of football left in him. Because he does."

Listen to Mike Preston on Mondays from 3 to 5 p.m. on Fox Sports (1370 AM).

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