Ravens look to J. Lewis, secondary to perform

OWINGS MILLS -- Although the Baltimore Ravens are looking to create a popular fashion statement by unveiling intimidating, black uniforms Sunday night, their primary goal is to revive two traditional standbys.

When the Ravens faced off with the Cleveland Browns two months ago to begin the season, All-Pro running back Jamal Lewis was surprisingly shut down and a usually stalwart secondary was in disarray.

As Baltimore (4-3) hosts Cleveland (3-4) in a nationally televised game at M&T Bank Stadium, the defending AFC North champions welcome back Lewis from a two-game suspension for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy. Now, their defensive backs are reading from the same script. "Jamal coming back creates our balance," said linebacker Ray Lewis, who planted the seed for the black uniforms with new owner Steve Bisciotti. "Everybody knows how Jamal controls the clock and how well our defense plays when Jamal is doing that.

"Just with Jamal being back, I think it's time to go on a run, a nice three, four-game win streak and get back to doing what we do best."

For Jamal Lewis, it's a chance to thrive against a team he almost always dominates. Held to 57 yards on 20 carries in the Ravens' 20-3 season-opening loss, the burly 245-pound runner takes the field tonight with the knowledge that he has exploited the Browns several times.

In seven career games against Cleveland, Lewis has rushed for 1,100 yards and six touchdowns for a 6.9 average on 162 carriers. Last season, Lewis shattered the NFL single-game rushing mark with 295 yards against the Browns in Baltimore. Lewis gained 500 yards total last season as Baltimore swept the series with Cleveland, and he has averaged 157.1 yards against the Browns for his career.

Yet, Cleveland tackled much more crisply than ever before against Lewis, swarming the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year to engineer an upset victory. The Ravens are favored by six points this time.

"They played some sound football," Jamal Lewis said of the Browns' season-opening strategy. "It's not like they did something really amazing. They just put their hats in the right place and they stopped us."

Meanwhile, the secondary will be looking to cut down on the big plays it allowed Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia to manufacture in the last encounter.

Garcia improvised and unleashed passes of 46 and 51 yards to break a 3-3 tie and assume control of the game. Often, safeties Ed Reed and Will Demps didn't seem to be on the same page as cornerbacks Gary Baxter and Deion Sanders.

"They were huge plays that we blew a coverage or two," Sanders said. "I don't think that will happen this weekend. We are too good, and if we can nullify those big plays then we should be fine.

"We are communicating better and know what each others' strengths and weaknesses are. We also know how to be there for one another."

Since that game, though, the Ravens have intercepted 10 passes and returned two for touchdowns. Both Reed and Sanders have intercepted three passes, and Baltimore is allowing only 14.3 points per contest to lead the NFL.

The Ravens' seventh-ranked pass defense is allowing 190 passing yards a game, and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and Co. have generated 20 sacks, seven from Suggs.

"It has gotten better, but that is what is supposed to happen," Reed said of the improved defensive communication. "You can't concentrate on what Garcia did against us, because those mistakes have been corrected."

With the exception of Garcia's long passes to the since-traded Quincy Morgan and Andre' Davis, who is still with the Browns and averaging 26 yards per reception, Cleveland only mustered 153 yards of total offense.

"It's time to get that taste out of our mouth," Ray Lewis said.

With Jamal Lewis' return, he's facing a Browns defense that now ranks 11th against the run. Cleveland is allowing 107.4 rushing yards per contest and 3.9 per carry. And Lewis has been held under 100 yards in three of his five starts. "They've done some different things defensively," Jamal Lewis said. "As long as we play our game, I think we'll be all right. We just have to go out and be the most dominant, physical team at the line of scrimmage."

Offensively, the Ravens have the last-ranked passing game and rank 30th overall. Despite quarterback Kyle Boller's solid game against the Eagles with a conservative approach, it's no secret whom the Ravens will rely upon: Jamal Lewis.

"It's an enormous challenge playing against him," Browns coach Butch Davis said. "He's clearly one of the most physically gifted and talented running backs that I've ever seen. He's got great power, great bursts, great explosion and he's got outstanding speed.

"It just takes a tremendous effort defensively. It takes total defense because you can't have one individual responsible for stopping him."

For the Ravens, this is a critical game in terms of the division race. The Pittsburgh Steelers (6-1) host the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles (7-0) today, and Baltimore is two games behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North.

A win over Cleveland would give Baltimore a 3-1 mark in division games.

"It's a big game, just due to what happened to us last time," Jamal Lewis said. "We just want to go in and put it together and show that we're a better team than they saw last time. I just want to get back into the groove of things."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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