Intriguing encounter between Lewis and Martin

OWINGS MILLS -- In a classic encounter between elite athletes, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and New York Jets running back Curtis Martin will engage in their own personal game of hide-and-seek. <br><br> Martin is closing in on his 10th straight 1,000-yard season, and Lewis is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

It's an obvious case of strength vs. strength, and something will have to give Sunday when Lewis' Ravens (5-3) face off with Martin's Jets (6-2) in the Meadowlands.

Baltimore is allowing 98.9 rushing yards per contest, ranking seventh in the league as Lewis leads them with 111 tackles. Martin ranks third in the NFL with 865 rushing yards and sports the highest single-game total of any back this season with 196 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"He's definitely someone that as an offense you worry about because he's all over the place," Martin said of Lewis. "He's one of the best, if not the best defensive player in the NFL. He's always a concern.

"Ray's very talented, yet you can't afford to let that affect what you do. Your fundamentals have to be that much more on cue."

In three previous encounters, Lewis holds the clear advantage. Martin has been held to 47, 58 and 52 rushing yards. Now, Martin gets a rematch when he's 135 yards shy of eclipsing 1,000 yards.

"Curtis is 31, but he's playing like he's 25 right now," Lewis said. "It's always exciting to play against a guy like that, a class act who's going to come in and just play hard football."

The Jets rank fourth in the NFL in rushing with 144.6 yards per game. And Martin has the advantage of darting off of center Kevin Mawae's blocks.

"To me, he's probably the best center in the league right now," Lewis said. "He's one of the most athletic centers you'll probably face in your career as well as one of the smartest guys. This is a guy who has a cast, so he snaps with the other hand. This is a guy who knows how to adapt to anything around him."

Mawae is a versatile All-Pro who combines athleticism and leverage superior to most fullbacks in the open field. He has started 104 consecutive games, the longest streak among centers in the NFL.
"Whenever you see a center pulling, you know he's an incredible athlete," defensive end Marques Douglas said. "Everything starts with him."

Mawae is 6-foot-4, 289 pounds, tall enough for Martin (5-11, 210 pounds) to hide behind then cut back against the grain.

"He's the quarterback of our offensive line," Martin said. "When you have those dominating linebackers, Kevin has the feet, the quickness, the speed to run with them and compete with them. He's more like a fullback or a tight end playing center."

It will be critical for nose guards Kelly Gregg and Maake Kemoeatu to tie up Mawae so he can't reach the second level to cut off Lewis and clear pathways for Martin.

Otherwise, this could be a similar situation to the Ravens' loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last month when Priest Holmes rushed for 135 yards to become the only running back to rush for 100 yards or more against Baltimore this season. The Ravens allowed 178 rushing yards against Kansas City.

They ran directly at Lewis, sending a convoy of blockers after the All-Pro linebacker. Afterward, Lewis was sporting a cut across the bridge of his nose.

"I think we've grown since the Chiefs," Douglas said. "We have to play at our level."

Yet, Martin plays at an extremely high level, reaching rarified gridiron air. Martin ranks seventh in NFL history on the all-time rushing list with 12,534 career yards. Martin has already passed Thurman Thomas, Franco Harris, Marcus Allen and Jim Brown this season, and he needs 96 more yards to pass Jerome Bettis (12,631 yards) for the sixth-most rushing yards in league history.

Yet, the soft-spoken Martin rarely receives much recognition. "I like it exactly the way it is," Martin said. "For me, there's something about letting my work speak for itself. I'm not into all the hype. I don't really want it and I don't feel like I need it."

Martin has gained a total of 157 yards against Baltimore on 61 carries, averaging 2.6 yards per rush. In last week's loss to the Buffalo Bills, Martin was limited to 67 yards on 19 carries.

Since 2000, Lewis has openly stated that he doesn't believe in allowing running backs to eclipse the 100-yard mark.

Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson rushed for 98 yards earlier this season, and only nine runners have rushed for 100 yards or more against the Ravens dating back to 2000.

Lewis has a way of imposing his will at key junctures of the season. This is one of those critical times as Baltimore is two games behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-1) in the AFC North.

"Ray's a full-speed guy from the time he comes out of the tunnel warming up until the end of the game," Jets coach Herm Edwards said. "He sets the standard for that defense and he makes those guys accountable. Does he talk about how good he is? Yeah, but he backs it up, too.

"He can talk it, and walk it. He plays hard every play. He's passionate about it. He's a smart player. He studies. He does all those things you want to do and emulate."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times and

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