Taylor and Smith readying for J. Lewis' absence

OWINGS MILLS - Jamal Lewis' handoff to Chester Taylor and Musa Smith is all but imminent, and the Baltimore Ravens' formidable running game will try to keep striding without its bruising All-Pro running back. <br><br> The impending loss of the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year after playing against the Washington Redskins on Sunday night is due to a two-game suspension for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy with a plea bargain in his federal drug conspiracy case.

And Lewis' prominent absence leaves questions about how Taylor and Smith will perform and the cumulative effect on the football team.

"I think they'll do well," Lewis said Friday. "Anytime I come out, I have no problem with bringing in either one of them to substitute for me because they're pretty good backs and they know their stuff. I think they could start anywhere else in the league."

The Ravens have been preparing for this scenario since Lewis, 25, was indicted in February, giving Taylor and Smith an extended workload during the preseason. Taylor is expected to start against the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 24 when Lewis' suspension begins and Oct. 31 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Will the tandem be as capable of breaking long runs as Lewis, whose four touchdown runs includes a 75-yard jaunt in a win over the Cincinnati Bengals?

Will they be able to withstand the pounding of increased carries as they replace last year's rushing champion who gained a league-high 2,066 yards on 387 attempts?

Will they generate enough production without Lewis, who has run for 378 yards, to take pressure off of second-year quarterback Kyle Boller and the lowest-ranked passing game in the NFL?

"I'm ready to step up," Taylor said. "We're ready to play our roles. I've been looking forward to the opportunity. It's going to be the same offense. It's not going to change."

Taylor and Smith represent contrasting styles.

At 5-foot-9, 213 pounds, Taylor is the shiftier runner and the superior pass-catcher. Smith is a burly alternative.

Taylor has rushed for 121 yards on 21 carries, including a career-high 76 yards on nine carries in a 30-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Chester is more of a slasher, cut-back kind of guy, and Musa is a downhill, speed type of guy," receiver Travis Taylor said. "They both bring aspects of what Jamal has going for him."

Last season, Taylor gained 276 yards and two touchdowns on 63 carries, catching 20 passes for 132 yards with 23 kickoff returns for 448 yards. The former sixth-round pick from Toledo said he's confident he can handle the 20 to 25 carries that Lewis typically shoulders each week.

"It seems like every year I feel more comfortable with the offense, and it flows like that," said Taylor, who led Baltimore in the preseason with 216 rushing yards on 32 carries for two scores. "The offensive line has been doing a great job of blocking. All I do is try to get to the holes quick."

Smith is an imposing, highly regarded 6-foot, 232-pound inside runner selected in the third round out of Georgia two years ago. The Ravens' scouts rated him as a first-round talent.

Smith hasn't carried the football in the regular season this year, playing on special teams after rushing for 164 yards on 52 carries with one touchdown during the preseason. Physically, he's somewhat similar to Lewis, but isn't as fast.

"I have to step up my game," said Smith, who scored twice in short-yardage last year. "We can't lose any productivity in the backfield; me and Chester are ready and we're going to hold it down while he's out."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times and ravensinsider.com

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