Lewis thrilled with centerpiece role in 46 defense

OWINGS MILLS – As the centerpiece of the Baltimore Ravens' revamped 46 defense, middle linebacker Ray Lewis is enthralled with once again being a designated hitter.

In a scheme devised to headline Lewis' ability to roam sideline to sideline and free him from the heavy-duty responsibilities of taking on blockers that limited his impact last season, the seven-time Pro Bowl selection hopes to do what he does best.

Shadowing running backs, and delivering bone-rattling blows.

"That's like telling your premier running back that you're going to make sure he's doesn't get touched in a football game," Lewis said. "To come into camp and my defensive coordinator says, ‘You're not going to be touched,' I'm like a little kid all over again.

"I don't try to bash people and then try to get to the football. No, I get to the running back. No running back wants to face me in this league, and they know that."

First-year defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is instituting the aggressive 46 alignment his father, Buddy Ryan, ran with the fabled 1985 Chicago Bears that headlined Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary.

"We're excited about getting the bull's-eye off Ray Lewis," Ryan said. "He doesn't need to be a nose guard this year. We should be in great shape against the running game. You don't have a blocker for Ray."

In the 3-4 defense run by former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the new San Francisco 49ers coach, Lewis often was wrestling with oversized offensive linemen.

At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds with exceptional speed, Lewis is undersized for taking on blocks and that crack in his armor was evident last season. Now, multiple defenders will again be walling off blockers from Lewis.

"It's always tough because that's when you have to humble yourself and you have to do whatever they tell you to do," Lewis said. "It didn't alter how I prepared and didn't alter my passion for the game. But it alters how dominant I can really be in this game."

Lewis registered 200 tackles last season along with one sack, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.

While the Ravens finished sixth in the NFL in total defense and eighth against the run, they allowed 178 rushing yards on 46 carries against the Kansas City Chiefs and 183 rushing yards on 42 attempts in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After he was alternately throttled by Chiefs offensive guard Will Shields and fullback Tony Richardson, a gash across the bridge of Lewis' nose was bleeding.

"I never had to change anything, the scheme had to change," Lewis said. "The scheme has got to fit your players. It's the first time in history that I heard a linebacker compared to an offensive lineman.

"My thing is bashing running backs. That's what I want to get back to – having fun, and let them deal with me. That's what the 46 defense does."

The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year decided to take two months off after a 9-7 season where Baltimore missed the playoffs. Normally, Lewis takes three weeks off before resuming his rigorous workout regimen.

"The beauty of this offseason is I've had complete peace, perfect peace actually," Lewis said. "I got away from being involved in anything that had to do with football. Instead, I dealt with my family and my kids."

Entering his 10th season, Lewis celebrated his 30th birthday last month. He emphasized that he doesn't feel like his game is in decline.

"The beauty of it is you say, ‘You're getting old,'" Lewis said. "I say, ‘I'm getting better.'"

Amid speculation that Lewis would hold out because he wants to restructure the $50 million contract he signed in 2002 that included a $19 million signing bonus, the linebacker has attended minicamp for the last two weeks.

Lewis, who is slated to earn $5.5 million on a contract that runs through 2008, declined to elaborate on the situation.

"There is an appropriate time to talk about everything, and now is not the time to speak about a contract," Lewis said. "There's no need to talk about that at all."

When asked when he might be willing to discuss his contract, Lewis replied, "Whenever [the front office] feels the time is. I don't have nothing to say about it."

Aaron Wilson is the chief writer for RavensInsider.Com He is also the Ravens' reporter for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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