Ravens to return to smash-mouth roots

OWINGS MILLS -- In an attempt to revive their dormant running game, the Baltimore Ravens are returning to their smash-mouth roots. It's a reaction to how former Pro Bowl running back Jamal Lewis has been getting bashed in the face for two games. Baltimore (0-2) has renewed its emphasis on the I-formation, and will insert fullback Alan Ricard again as Lewis' personal bodyguard.

Something had to change for the Ravens' offense, which ranks last in the NFL with 45.5 yards rushing per contest.

"I'm not trying to find a reason why," said Lewis, who was held to nine yards in a loss to the Tennessee Titans and is averaging only 2.2 yards per carry while often being hit in the backfield before he can even take a step. "We just need to do what we do best. Our line loves to lean on guys and lean on defenses and just set that tempo. I think that's what we're getting back to.

"The last couple of games, it's more of a finesse type attitude. Now, it seems like we're getting back to what we did best the last four or five years."
The running game had always been a benchmark for the Ravens. Now, that foundation appears creaky.

Lewis has gained only 57 rushing yards on 26 carries with 25 of his yards coming on one carry against the Indianapolis Colts. He declined to identify specifically why the running game is struggling, but it's clear that Lewis doesn't have sufficient room to run as the offensive line has come under fire.

"It's crazy, the caliber of back he is, that he's so down there," offensive guard Keydrick Vincent said. "But we're working on some things, and we should be better. We're going back to our bread and butter, and it's going to be exciting."

A prolific runner who gained 2,066 yards for the second-highest total in league history in 2003, Lewis ranks 49th in the NFL in rushing. The former NFL Offensive Player of the Year actually ranks behind quarterbacks Michael Vick, David Carr, Aaron Brooks, Daunte Culpepper and J.P. Losman along with wide receiver Chris Chambers.

"We're trying to get it cranked up because what has been going on isn't acceptable to Jamal or this organization," Ricard said. "We need to get back to our hard-nosed, hit-you-in-the-face style."

Under offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, the Ravens have achieved a new type of offensive imbalance. They have attempted 95 passes with 55 runs, becoming predictable that they will abandon the run as soon as they fall behind.

The Ravens have scored only 17 points with two meaningless fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Lewis is preaching a stubborn approach to rectify the problem. The Ravens are 20-6 when Lewis rushes for 100 yards or more.

"Early, when you're getting those 2-yard runs, those 3-yard runs, you've got guys on defense out there that are fresh, but eventually they'll break," said Lewis, who emphasized that his surgically repaired right ankle isn't a factor in his lack of production."You've got some 300-pound guys leaning on those guys and you've got a big 245-pound back, a 240-pound fullback that's pounding and pounding. In the third, fourth quarter, they start breaking, I don't care how good a defense is.

"Even the 2,000-yard season, everybody knew we were going to run the football. It's just like Nebraska running the option. They were going to run the option, but you just have to execute and stop it. They know we're going to run the football."

The Jets rank 24th against the run, allowing 134.3 rushing yards a game. Former Ravens assistant Donnie Henderson's defense features quick athletes in defensive end John Abraham and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

"Gotta do it, gotta do it," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of the need to run the football successfully. "And it's a tall order against a group that has five first-round draft choices in the front seven. It ain't going to be easy, but we've got to commit to it and we will."

Billick attributed some of the problem to Lewis' abbreviated training camp and lack of time working with Ricard.

Jets coach Herm Edwards is wary of a potential Lewis breakthrough.

"Yeah, I got a funny feeling," Edwards said. "Jamal is a heck of a football player and is a powerful guy who has a good offensive line that can move you off the ball."

Ricard was held out for the first two weeks with a lingering calf injury while the Ravens experimented with Ovie Mughelli and fullback and used tight ends Daniel Wilcox and Darnell Dinkins as blocking backs. A Pro Bowl alternate in 2003 who's one of Lewis' closest friends, Ricard's presence was missed sorely by Lewis.

"There's a chemistry we have, a lot of people don't understand that," Lewis said. "It's like, ‘He's just a fullback and I'm a tailback,' but it kind of works hand-in-hand in producing a good running game, which we've had since I've been here."

The statistics are staggering considering Lewis' past productivity. He leads the NFL in being "stuffed," according to Stats, Inc., which credits him for 10 runs with lost yardage.

"I'm not embarrassed," Lewis said. "The last two weeks we tried to balance it out and do some different things. Hey, that's not my thing. I like to run the ball.

"I like to set a tempo and get things rolling. Now, we're getting back to that, so I guess we'll see Sunday how things work out."

NOTE: The Jets signed former Texas Tech quarterback Kliff Kingsbury as their third quarterback and began practicing with former Ravens quarterback Vinny Testaverde as the backup behind new starter Brooks Bollinger. Starter Chad Pennington and backup Jay Fiedler are out with shoulder injuries.

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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