R. Lewis looking for big impact in 46 defense

WESTMINSTER -- In a blur of muscle and movement, Ray Lewis delivers a trademark roughneck tackle at the sideline and makes another running back wince with pain. The Baltimore Ravens' perennial All-Pro middle linebacker cherishes moments like these when he dominates an offense with his aggressiveness and athleticism. Just as much as he loathes how offenses were able to limit his impact at times last season by sending extra blockers after him.

Now that the Ravens have shifted out of the 3-4 alignment and implemented the 46 defense and returned to a 4-3 base look, Lewis hopes to reclaim his status as a game-changing player, a title claimed last year by safety Ed Reed, who emerged as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

As Lewis, 30, enters his 10th season, he's overjoyed at the prospect of running untouched to the football as new defensive coordinator Rex Ryan plans to have nearly three linemen at a combined 1,000 pounds of bulk directly in front of the star linebacker.

"To come into camp and have my defensive coordinator say you won't be touched, I feel like a kid all over again," Lewis said. "I don't go out and try to bash people and then get to the football. No, I get to the running back. No running back wants to face me in this league."

Analysts who still consider Lewis the NFL's top linebacker echo that sentiment.
"Ray is as intimidating a player as there is in the league," said Mark Schlereth, an ESPN analyst and former NFL guard. "A couple of years ago, people were saying Brian Urlacher was getting close to Ray, saying Ray is 1A and Urlacher is 1B. I talk to a lot of guys I respect as football players about Ray and the other linebackers and it ain't even close."

Although Lewis was likely blocked more last season than any since his rookie year and broke his wrist twice, he still led the team with 200 tackles and was named to his seventh Pro Bowl. Essentially for Lewis, it comes down to how much he gets blocked.

At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, Lewis remains one of the fiercest hitters in the league. However, the isolation play was troublesome for Lewis a year ago, particularly in wrestling matches against Kansas City Chiefs guard Will Shields and fullback Tony Richardson and Pittsburgh Steelers guard Alan Faneca and fullback Dan Kreider.

Baltimore surrendered 178 rushing yards on 46 carries to the Chiefs and gave up 183 rushing yards on 42 attempts to Pittsburgh. Games like those fuel the argument that Lewis hasn't been as effective since the departure of gargantuan defensive tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa.

"If you don't get a body on Ray, he will run around and have tackling practice," Schlereth said. "When I was playing for the Broncos in 2000, we broke down seven or eight games on Ray Lewis and he was only blocked by an offensive lineman seven times. He never got touched because of those two big thugs in the middle. He can still do that in the right scheme."

Lewis didn't enjoy the 3-4 employed for three seasons by former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
"It didn't alter how I prepared, it didn't alter my passion for the game," Lewis said. "But at the same time, it alters how dominant I can be.

"The thing is, I never had to change anything. The scheme had to change."
The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year didn't produce as many big plays in 2004. Lewis recovered two fumbles, forced one and recorded a sack, but didn't intercept a pass. Experts are predicting a resurgent season.

"Ray's still the best middle linebacker in football," said ESPN analyst Joe Theismann. "To me, Ray Lewis has got plenty left. Ray Lewis is special, and I feel like Ray has a great opportunity to use his speed and range in the 46."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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