Ray Lewis can't wait to face Steelers Sunday

Ray Lewis accidentally wandered into the line of fire of a heated game of cornhole in the Ravens locker room before practice Wednesday.

"Ray Lewis!" screamed safety Haruki Nakamura in mock outrage.

For a moment, Lewis seemed startled. Then realizing what he had done, the great middle linebacker smiled and extended his arms, pretending to soar like an airplane as the beanbags resumed flying over his head.

Yeah, too bad the guy's so uptight for Sunday's showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

The truth, of course, is that even in his 15th season, Ray Lewis lives for these kind of games, big games on big stages, 70,000 fans shrieking on every play.

His resume reads like the best from pro football's Valhalla. Eleven Pro Bowls. Two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2000, 2003.) Super Bowl XXXV MVP. The Ravens' all-time tackles leader (2,368). The team leader in tackles in 12 of the past 14 seasons. Eleven seasons with at least 150 tackles.

You wonder how much longer he can play at such an elevated level. But that's a question for another day.

This is Steelers week. And winding down a magnificent career that will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the last thing on Lewis' mind right now.

"The guy not only motivates the team, he motivates the city," linebacker Terrell Suggs had said of Lewis moments earlier. "He kind of puts all of us and the fans on his back. Not a lot of men have … shoulders built for that. His are pretty big. He gets us all ready to play. He's our physical and emotional leader."

To that end, Lewis has spent the week studying reams of film on the Steelers' offense and preparing himself for yet another dock brawl in the Steel City.

There have been many of them since he first broke into the league back in 1996, and he says he relishes them even more now than he did then.

When he met with the media Wednesday, the first question posed was this: Is Ravens versus Steelers the most physical matchup in the league right now?

"I think so," he said quickly. "You look at both defenses, [their] style and mentality, the way we play football, they get after people and we get after people … "

His voice trailed off.

"So here we go again," he concluded with a shrug of his shoulders and the hint of a smile.

Yes, here we go again. Only this meeting with Pittsburgh will be a little different than most of the ones in recent memory.

That's because the Steelers, who have gotten off to a 3-0 start, will be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who sits out the last game of a four-game suspension for generally being a dangerous creep around women.

Charlie Batch will be the Steelers' quarterback Sunday. In football years, Batch might be old enough to be your grandfather.

But Lewis says Roethlisberger's suspension makes no difference in how the Ravens play this game.

"Absolutely not," he said. "… Because you're playing the Pittsburgh Steelers, bottom line. They have a tradition of no matter what's going on, they're going to play their style of football. If you go in there worrying about one person not being there, you're going to find yourself in a whole lot of trouble, because they stick to their identity."

A moment or two later, the talk turned to Hines Ward, the Steelers' veteran wide receiver and frequent Ravens nemisis, now in his 13th season in the league.

At the mention of Ward's name, Lewis seemed to light up.

Ward ranks third among active wide receivers with 905 career receptions, and his 11,098 receiving yards rank him No. 1 all-time among Steelers receivers.

For an instant, Lewis seemed to be imagining Ward on a crossing pattern in front of him, the ball in the air and the two veterans about to meet violently on the football field for the umpteenth time.

"Hines Ward is one of the true professionals," he said at last. "He plays the game with a smile on his face most of the time. It [ticks] people off. But if you can play the game with that kind of emotion and intensity, then do it. That's why he's been around for so long."

"How do you wipe that smile off his face?" a reporter wanted to know.

"Hit him," Lewis said. "That's the way to knock off anybody's smile on the football field."

It's a lock to say Ray Lewis will be hitting a few people at Heinz Field this Sunday. Again: big game, big stage. This is what the man lives for.

It's Steelers Week. For Lewis, even after all these years, it's the gift that keeps on giving.


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