Steelers ready for Ray Lewis' return

<b>PITTSBURGH – </b> Hines Ward calls him Mr. Lewis. Alan Faneca calls him their playmaker. The Baltimore Ravens simply call Ray Lewis healthy, and because of that they feel they have a chance to beat the Steelers in the regular-season opener at Heinz Field on Sunday. <br><br> Funny thing, though, about Lewis' return to the Ravens' lineup after missing 11 games last year with a shoulder injury: The Steelers averaged fewer yards against the Ravens with Lewis out of the lineup.

Since 1996, when Lewis broke into the Ravens' lineup as a rookie, the Steelers have averaged 328 yards per game against the rest of the league and 333 yards against the Ravens. More surprising is that without Lewis last season, the Ravens held the Steelers to an average of 317 yards in the two meetings.

The kicker, though, is that the Steelers scored more points (65) against the Ravens in two games than they had in three games (63) the previous season. The difference is easy to understand.

"Yeah. Ray Lewis," said Plaxico Burress. "There's no other way to say it."

Burress knows Lewis well. The two have the same financial advisor and have become friends over the last few years.

"I've seen two players in this league who make their team win," Burress said. "Ray's one of them and Michael Vick's the other. Ray just changes the defense's whole attitude and everybody feeds off of him. It showed when he didn't play last year. That defense wasn't really as intense as it had been in the past. When he comes in they're a whole new football team."

Lewis will be here Sunday for opening day and he and the Ravens have revived a defense that was responsible for winning the 2000 championship. In their first two preseason games this year, the Ravens limited quarterbacks Drew Bledsoe and Michael Vick to 35 yards of offense in seven combined series. Vick ended up leaving the field on a stretcher.

How does a team prepare for such a presence?

"Our old line coach, Kent Stephenson, used to say ‘I don't want to see any of that WWF (stuff)'," said Faneca. "When (Lewis) makes a big play he does a lot of flamboyant stuff and Kent used to always say, ‘I don't want to see any of that WWF (stuff). Shut him down.' That was always his thing."

But during film work, do coaches stop the projector and circle the 6-foot-1, 245-pound middle linebacker with the 52 on his shirt?

"Not at all," said Amos Zereoue. "If you're watching film, coaches don't have to say anything else. He's a special guy and we realize if he catches you sleeping he can make things happen. You have to be up on your toes at all times."

Do coaches plot to take him out?

"Most definitely," Zereoue said. "If you cut the head off the snake, the body dies."

It's an appropriate analogy for the Ravens. But what's Lewis like on the field? Do players look for Lewis or do they hear and/or feel him?

"Defensive linemen, you know where they're at," said Faneca. "A good linebacker, you've got to find him."

"You can sense when he's not on the field because a guy like him is all over the field," said Zereoue. "You know when he's out there."

Zereoue has had some success against Lewis and the Ravens. Of his nine career rushing touchdowns, six have come against the Ravens. Although he's only faced Lewis in the 2001 playoffs, Zereoue carried 24 times for 63 yards and a pair of scores in the 27-10 win.

Another guy who's had some success against Lewis is fullback Dan Kreider, whose de-cleating blocks have been much ballyhooed here over the years. What's the key to Kreider's success against Ray Lewis?

"I'm not going to sit here and say it one way or the other because I've got to play the guy twice this year," Kreider said. "I just try to go out and go hard every play. When you're going against a guy of that caliber – I mean he's the best in the league – you've got to go even harder. You pump yourself up for games like that.

"Hey, the sun shines on a dog's (rear) every once in awhile. That's the way I look at it."

Jim Wexell

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