Jamal hopes to replicate 2003 game vs Browns

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- No bravado. No hype. Definitely, no guarantees of an epic performance relayed via Jamal Lewis' cell phone. It's an entirely different climate for the Baltimore Ravens' running back despite his old stellar history against the Cleveland Browns.

A mutual friend of Lewis and Browns middle linebacker Andra Davis -- the same person that set up the players' conversation three years ago where Lewis accurately predicted he would shatter the NFL rushing record -- tried to prod Lewis into another bold statement this week to spice up Sunday's game at Cleveland. He was unsuccessful, though. "He called me and said, ‘What are you going to do?' and I said, ‘I'm not playing these games with you," Lewis said. "Everybody is going to make a big deal out of it." Here's why: The confluence of Lewis' undefeated Ravens (2-0) facing the Browns (0-2), and his 295-yard record-smashing game on Sept. 14, 2003 that propelled him toward a 2,066-yard campaign and being named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

Although Lewis rushed for 205 yards in his next game that year against Cleveland, he has yet to eclipse the century mark in his last four games against the Ravens' bitter AFC North rival. Last year, the Browns limited Lewis 148 yards on 44 carries and no scores for an average of 3.36 yards per carry. He gained 59 yards on 24 carries for a 2.5 average in October of 2005, concluding the season with a loss at Cleveland with 89 yards on 20 carries. "I don't know that we ran real well on them last time, or well enough," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We like to think of ourselves as a running team, and we'll find out on Sunday."

While Lewis is beginning to regain his brutish running form as he contends with a nagging hip injury, the heady accomplishments of three years set a lofty benchmark to climb for. "Yeah, it seems like a real long time ago," Lewis said. "Everyday you line up and try to do the same things you did that day when you went out and got those yards. Hey, sometimes it's fate and it just happens."

Even if the former Pro Bowl runner isn't making brash pronouncements about how he'll fare against Cleveland, this impending encounter does appear to be tailor-made for him. The Browns have installed what they hoped would be an aggressive, physical 3-4 alignment to mirror coach Romeo Crennel's former employer: the New England Patriots.

However, it hasn't worked out that way at all. The Browns are tied for 26th in the league against the run, allowing 158 rushing yards per contest. Because of that recent history and Lewis' track record against them, the Browns are likely to employ extra defenders at the line of scrimmage. Especially if quarterback Steve McNair has another substandard game throwing the football. "Why wouldn't they?" Lewis said. "Ever since that year, they've gotten better with personnel and they've gotten better defensively and I think really overemphasized stopping the run." That approach hasn't worked wonders. In fact, it's been just the opposite.

Already, the New Orleans Saints have run it down the Browns' throats for 150 yards on 40 carries. The Cincinnati Bengals piled up 481 yards of total offense, including Rudi Johnson's 145 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Could Lewis reprise his 2003 breakthrough performance against a soft front seven? "Jamal is one of those hard-running, tackle-breaking backs," Crennel said. "He doesn't go down very easily. He has really strong legs and he seems to like to cut back or even break outside when the seam is there. "We know that if Jamal able to run the ball, it will be tough to get off the field. Visions of a 150-yard running game like we have given up the last two weeks come to mind. We are going to tighten it up to try to slow the run down." Traditionally, a big game by Lewis usually translates into a Baltimore victory. The Ravens are 21-7 when he has gained 100 yards or more.

In two games, Lewis has yet to rush for 100 yards while working on a limited pitch count. He has rushed for 148 yards and one touchdown on 37 carries, an average of four yards per carry. "Coach Billick told me that he would take it easy on me because I didn't get that many reps during the preseason and that much contact, so he's taking care of me for the most part," Lewis said. "But I'm ready. So whenever he's ready to let me go, I'm ready to go. I'll be ready for whatever."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland

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