Ravens' J.Lewis sprints towards NFL milestone

OWINGS MILLS – Jamal Lewis is sprinting up a steep mountain toward football immortality. And the Baltimore Ravens are on a quest for the AFC North title. The running back is poised to join an elite NFL brotherhood of four prior 2,000-yard rushers. And perhaps with a stellar effort tonight in Baltimore, Lewis might surpass Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards that has stood for almost two decades.

Along with the rest of the Ravens, though, Lewis is staring at an imposing obstacle that he's slammed into helmet-first before with not very pristine results: The Ravens take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium this evening. With 1,952 yards, Lewis needs 154 yards to get past the mark Dickerson set in 1984. The bruising 5-foot-11, 245-pound runner needs only 48 yards, though, to join the fraternity of 2,000-yard rushers that includes Dickerson, Detroit's Barry Sanders (2,053, 1997) Denver's Terrell Davis (2,008, 1998) and Buffalo's O.J. Simpson (2,003, 1973). 

Lewis, 24, has never rushed for even 100 yards in four career games against Pittsburgh as the Ravens have been forced to abandon the run largely because they fell behind. Is the record still a strong possibility considering Ravens coach Brian Billick said he'll hand Lewis the football 50 times if that's what it takes to defeat the Steelers? "Yeah, the record is attainable," said Lewis, the fifth overall pick of the NFL draft in 2000 who has gained all these yards despite undergoing reconstructive knee surgery on both legs in recent years. "That is tangible and possible, but we just have to go out and do our game plan, just be real physical and try to outplay them. Anything is possible, but you just have to execute and do the right things." 

Tonight's football game not only closes the chapter on the NFL regular season, it will likely decide whether the Ravens win the AFC North title and advance to the playoffs. Baltimore (9-6) can claim its first division title by defeating the Steelers (6-9), who have won the previous five encounters in the series and every game in Baltimore except for one loss during the Ravens' inaugural season at Memorial Stadium. Or the contest could become anticlimactic if the Cleveland Browns manage to defeat the Bengals this afternoon in Cincinnati. A Bengals win coupled with a Ravens loss would clinch the division for Cincinnati based on all relevant tiebreakers. 

It's a rare balancing act between wanting Lewis to gain as many yards as possible while keeping sight of the top priority: advancing to the playoffs. Judging by the approach Baltimore has cited all week, the Ravens have their priorities in the proper order. The hierarchy might go something like this, assuming the Bengals win: 1. Win the football game to clinch the division; 2. Give Lewis a legitimate chance to pursue 2,000 yards and Dickerson's mark; 3. Pull Lewis and other significant starters depending upon the score, their health and, in Lewis' case, his statistics. "It's special," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "You can see why you have to embrace personal goals of your team, but it can never supercede the overall goal.

 Fortunately, these are in alignment. At some point, they can come in direct conflict with one another and there was the potential for that had things transpired a little bit differently. That asks a lot of an individual and a team. "A milestone like that, this is not breaking the team record for rushing. This is not an all-time career best. This puts you among the all-time greats. To say, ‘You know what, we are not going to do that,' that is tough. 

The team takes a great deal of pride in what potentially could be just an incredible season." Lewis leads the league in rushing and accounts for 42 percent of the Ravens' total offensive output. He set the single-game record with 295 yards against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 14, and dominated them again a week ago with 205 yards to become the AFC Offensive Player of the Week. Not surprisingly, the gliding retired runner who holds the record doesn't think Lewis is going to pass him on the all-time charts. "I'm going to put it like this: I put that record out there far enough that you're going to have to go get it," Dickerson told The Los Angeles Times. "Two thousand yards is hard enough, but when you get into the 2,100s — I mean, you see he's down to the last game to try to get there, and needs a big game. If he gets it, he deserves it" 

As far as Lewis' lack of staggering totals against the Steelers, which number 93, 34, 86 and 69 yards, he only carried the football 19, 13, 14 and 15 times in those respective games. The Steelers have surrendered 100 yards to only three running backs this season, giving up 122, 115 and 174 yards to Priest Holmes, William Green and Curtis Martin. Holmes needed 26 carries. Green required 33 attempts. And Martin carried it 30 times two weeks ago. "If you look at how many carries I have against them, I don't think it adds up," Lewis said. "I've never really gotten the ball a lot against those guys. Hopefully, they'll feed me this week and let me carry the ball a little bit more. "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. If it's not, it's not. I'm not going to press the issue." 

Others might beg to differ, though. Namely, Lewis' blockers, who seem to have a real hunger for the record. "I think we do talk about it more than him," Ricard said. "If he does, he's doing a good job of hiding it. He's not a greedy guy. His season is a big deal for all of us, but the main objective is for us to get a win. If he gets the record, that's just icing on the cake."

 It's no secret how Lewis has rushed for so many yards. He's big, strong, durable and fast. He's also well-conditioned after a summer of a grueling regimen of boxing and running hills in his hometown of Atlanta. He also changed his diet to include more lean meats along with fruits and vegetables. His improved fitness has helped him overcome a blowout of his right knee as a sophomore at the University of Tennessee and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Westminster at a training-camp practice on Aug. 8, 2001 "Your offseason training is what makes everything happen during the whole season for 16 weeks and on into the playoffs," Lewis said. "So, it's how you work out in the offseason. I learned that. I got my body in the great condition that it's in so that I could carry the ball this many times. "I'm young. I heal fast and I'm blessed." 

Lewis' offensive line is massive and agile, the largest in the league with an average weight of 329 ½ pounds. And the Ravens are the only team in the NFL with more rushing yards (2,546) than passing (2,105). They have helped Lewis batter defensive fronts crowded with eight, nine and sometimes 10 defenders. Now, he's within two football fields of breaking a record that has stood for 19 years. "It's a huge honor for me to be a part of it," left offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "I can tell my kids that guy running the ball, you can see my shoulder pad right next to him. It's special." 

Lewis also has an element of breakaway speed with touchdown runs of 82, 72 and 64 yards among his 13 scores. He has gotten stronger as games go on. In last week's 35-0 win over the Browns, Lewis had 41 yards at halftime, then he went for 164 yards in less than a half. "He's a big physical running back, almost like an Earl Campbell type," Dickerson said. "And he has very good speed for a big guy. He can outrun a lot of guys." Dickerson added that he won't be upset if Lewis breaks his mark, but predicted that the Steelers are going to have a mindset similar to the Houston Oilers when he broke Simpson's mark in 1984. "I think it's going to be very difficult," Dickerson said. "I just don't believe that the Steelers are going to let that happen." 

Whether Lewis joins the upper-level ranks of Dickerson, Sanders, Davis and Simpson, it's likely that he will be relatively subdued. He has rarely allowed himself much in the way of celebration, calmly flipping the ball to the referee after crossing the goal line. "This is just me," Lewis said. "This is what I'm supposed to do. I'm supposed to run the ball well, help my team win, go to the playoffs and do great things. I just try to stay humble and hungry." 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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