Thursday, September 21, 2000

Lewis free, still great

With murder charge dropped, football his focus

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ray Lewis
(AP photo)
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        Since he was named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl and led the league in tackles for a second time, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis stood trial on murder charges and became the unwitting poster boy in the NFL's campaign against violent off-field behavior.

        What Lewis never stopped being was a great football player. He's running sideline-to-sideline and running down running backs and receivers alike.

        In fact, Lewis is possibly a better team player because of the ordeal that started with the death of two men in Atlanta on Super Bowl night.

        Lewis, whose Ravens play host Sunday to the Bengals in Baltimore, was available for an interview Wednesday. But he would agree to it only if there were no questions about the incident.

        But his coach, Brian Billick, talked about how the event affected Lewis and his teammates. Murder charges were dropped against Lewis when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. Lewis is appealing the NFL's $250,000 fine for his role in the murder case.

        “Once we got to training camp, the team rallied around Ray from the very beginning,” Billick said Wednesday. “He was actually around a lot more in the offseason, which was a positive byproduct because his teammates got to know him a little better.

        “And training camp and on has been great. He has been focused. He's at peace with himself ... always mindful of the fact that two gentlemen are dead. But we've been able to put that behind us and move on as a team.”

        And how. The Ravens came back from a 23-7 halftime deficit to beat Jacksonville in Week 2 and establish themselves as legitimate AFC Central contenders. Expectations are high for the 2-1 Ravens, and Lewis has done his part.

        Through three games, he leads the team with 34 tackles. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound fifth-year pro had 198 tackles last season, tops in the league.

        “We're jelling very well,” said Lewis, who leads a defense that has allowed 18.3 points a game and has one shutout. “There's a sense of urgency in Baltimore right now with the loss last week. You can go back in the tank, but guys here are talking about they have to do. Guys aren't worried about anything else but taking care of their business and winning ballgames.”

        Baltimore lost 19-6 Sunday night in Miami. The Bengals come to town as the lowest-scoring team in the league with a second-year quarterback, two rookie wide receivers and an offensive line that has given up 12 sacks and not blocked well for the running game.

        Lewis isn't looking past Cincinnati, though.

        “I don't think you're ever jacked about a team no matter what they're going through or no matter who they have,” said the 25-year-old Lewis. “They're still an NFL team. They're the same thing as a wounded dog. You know, you've got a wounded dog in the corner, and somehow he comes out. We don't ever want our mentality to go in like that.”

        Lewis is the focal point of a defense that sent three other players to the Pro Bowl last season — defensive end Michael McCrary, linebacker Peter Boulware and defensive back Rod Woodson.

        Bengals fullback Clif Groce, who may meet up with Lewis on blitz blocking, thinks Lewis plays in the perfect defense that maximizes the linebacker's speed. Groce says his teammate, Takeo Spikes, is a similar player.

        “Lewis is a good player because he runs down the plays, but when you're untouched, when nobody can get to you ... You got (defensive tackle Tony) Siragusa taking up two and three people,” Groce said.

        “Now, with the addition of (defensive tackle) Sam Adams, I mean, how couldn't you do it? The line eats up people and you run around. It's just like being an eighth-grade linebacker. He's got Boulware and Woodson. It's perfect.”

        Groce thinks Spikes would shine in the Ravens' defense.

        “Now you put Spikes in there and see how many tackles he'd have without having to do all the checks and cover man-to-man,” Groce said. “You just play football. That's unfair. That's unreal. It's unusual. It's a good system.”

        Lewis, for his part, has a lot of respect for Spikes, who has a sack, an interception and leads the Bengals with 15 tackles through two games.

        “Takeo Spikes is a very athletic linebacker who is always on the fly to the ball,” he said. “And that's the thing you like to see in a linebacker whether he's wrong or right. Any time you have a linebacker who's going to the ball on any given down and stays on the field on all three downs, that's definitely a plus.”

        But because Lewis plays for a winning team and is surrounded by Pro Bowlers, he's the one who gets the attention. Not Spikes.

        Bengals rookie linebacker Armegis Spearman, who plays beside Spikes in place of the injured Brian Simmons, would like to play like either Spikes or Lewis.

        About Lewis, Spearman said, “I'm sure there's a bunch of young cats trying to play like him. Oh yeah, I want to make plays the way he does.”


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