Ray Lewis suddenly seems so vulnerable. Savvy 330-pound
defensive tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams are no longer
playing in front of him, crafty coordinator Marvin Lewis isn't
calling the shots from the sideline, and at least seven new
defensive starters will surround him. Even the Ravens' primary
scheme, the 4-3, in which Ray Lewis became one of the NFL's
premier players, has been ditched for the 3-4.
Lewis, Baltimore's $50 million All-Pro linebacker, understands
how dire the team's situation appears and what people are
wondering: Will the overhaul diminish the effectiveness of
arguably the most dominant defensive player in the game? With a
hint of defiance, he says, "It's my calling to do what others
think can't be done." Lewis is used to being the man of the
house. He was 10 when he cared for four younger siblings while
his single mother worked three jobs in Lakeland, Fla. He was 24
when he moved his teenage brother, Keon Lattimore, into his
suburban Baltimore home. At 27 Lewis hardly blinks when he
glances around the Ravens' training-camp locker room and sees
rookies and career backups dressing in stalls once occupied by
charismatic Pro Bowl players. "I've seen veteran teams go 1-15,"
Lewis says, "so why can't we reach the playoffs?"
But who would have thought Lewis would be one of just 16 players
left from the team that won the Super Bowl only 20 months ago?
That 23 players from last season, including seven starters on the
vaunted defense, would not return from a squad that went 10-6 and
reached the divisional round of the playoffs? That Marvin Lewis,
architect of the defense that in 2000 allowed 165 points (an NFL
record for a 16-game season), would leave to become defensive
coordinator of the Washington Redskins? Ray Lewis is bracing for
the toughest on-field challenge of his seven-year NFL career.
"Ray lost a lot of intangibles that made his job easier," says
defensive end Rob Burnett, who after playing 12 seasons for the
franchise was one of several marquee veterans who became
salary-cap casualties in the off-season. "He's going to have to
find some new ones or learn some new tricks."
Lewis spent the weeks before camp lugging 45-pound weights up
steep hills in the backwoods near his Maryland home, mindful that
he, of all Ravens, can't succumb to fatigue this season. He
bristled at the suggestion that he had hurt the team by skipping
a voluntary minicamp in April and dismissed the notion that he
was a no-show because he wanted his contract, which had two years
remaining, renegotiated. (In August he signed a seven-year, $50
million deal, which included a $19 million signing bonus.) He was
his old self at a mandatory camp in June, prodding, cajoling and
September 1, 2002
"I'm not waiting for my chances to motivate," Lewis says. "I'm
telling people all the time to give me the same energy that I'm
giving them. It doesn't take much to have a good defense. All we
need is three or four good players and two or three great ones,
and we can dictate what an offense does."
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, a longtime NFL defensive
assistant who was Baltimore's receivers coach last year, is
switching to the 3-4 because he believes the scheme is the best
fit for his personnel. The Ravens lost five of their top six
defensive linemen during the off-season, including Siragusa
(retired) and Adams (salary cap), and the athletic linebackers
are the strongest element of the defense. Coach Brian Billick
says the team will run a pure 3-4 look one third of the time and
try to confuse offenses with various fronts and blitz packages
out of a 3-4 set the rest of the time.
Speedy pass-rushing specialists Peter Boulware and Adalius Thomas
figure to be the biggest beneficiaries of the change. The 6'1",
245-pound Lewis, who played in the 3-4 as a rookie, will have to
adjust to having another inside linebacker in the formation--Ed
Hartwell, a 2001 fourth-round draft pick who impressed coaches
with his play on special teams last season, or free agent
Bernardo Harris--but says he'll blitz more, perhaps up to 30 times
a game. "If anything, I'll have more freedom," Lewis says. "I'll
be able to move around like [the San Diego Chargers' roaming]
An executive for one NFC team sees Lewis's new role as more
restricted than that. "Ray will have to make his [reads] before
he starts running people down," he says. "He'll be more of a
plugger-type linebacker, and that really isn't his game."
Lewis will also have to fight through more traffic to get to the
ball. In the 4-3 in recent years Siragusa and Adams teamed with
ends Burnett and Michael McCrary to funnel ballcarriers toward
Lewis. Now Baltimore is asking the 260-pound McCrary to bang with
tackles and guards. The Ravens are also hoping 285-pound
nosetackle Kelly Gregg, who appeared in eight games last year,
can draw double-team blocks. Rookie defensive end Tony Weaver, a
second-round pick out of Notre Dame, will have to learn on the
"[The 3-4] will make Ray a different player," says Pittsburgh
Steelers running back Jerome Bettis. "It will change his
aggressiveness because he'll have to shed more blockers. He's
been used to making every play because he didn't have to worry
about being touched with those two big slugs [Siragusa and
Adams] inside. He's also going to blitz and see plays from
different places. It's going to take some adjustment."
Even Nolan has concerns. "Ray is great, but those other guys took
a lot of pride in helping him be great," he says. "By using
younger linemen, we may have players more concerned with making a
play to keep their jobs than with keeping people off Ray."
Lewis scoffs at the notion that changing to the 3-4 will affect
his game. "A defense is just a format the coaches give you," he
says. "It's up to the players to determine how effective it is.
That comes down to passion, energy and desire, and we still have
a lot of those qualities around here." It also has something to
do with intelligence, and Lewis may be the smartest linebacker in
But in 1999 Lewis still had a reckless streak that occasionally
hurt the team. "Ray was trying to do too much," says Marvin
Lewis. "He sometimes feels like he has to make every tackle, and
he had a habit of leaving his responsibility and exposing another
part of the defense to a big play. He had to learn that he
couldn't play defense [simply] by reading the eyes of the
quarterback or the ballcarrier."
Midway through the season, Ray went to Marvin for help, saying he
wanted to see the game "through the eyes of a coach." Ray started
taking better notes in meetings. He studied more at night. "You
could see his evolution," says Burnett, now with the Miami
Dolphins. "He became better at breaking down film, recognizing
tendencies and understanding how offenses wanted to attack him."
The extra work paid off. The following season, when Baltimore
went 12-4 and won the championship, Lewis was named the league's
Defensive Player of the Year and the Super Bowl MVP.
By then he had also become a coach of sorts. Teammates marvel at
his ability to predict plays in practice and ask him if he's
reading cues that nobody else can see. In March, Lewis strolled
into Nolan's office, stared at the six new schemes on a bulletin
board and immediately deciphered them. After receiving his
playbook, Lewis asked to break down the schemes without any help
from coaches. He wanted to determine how offenses would try to
"The game becomes easier around your fourth or fifth year, and
that's what happened with Ray," says Ravens senior vice president
Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end with the Browns. "He
still has the talent, but now he's even better from the neck up.
He's gone from being a football player to being a pro football
But even Lewis acknowledges that he can't carry Baltimore alone.
Team chemistry is important, and it won't come easily for a squad
that has had so much turnover. Also, a locker room that was once
brimming with outspoken personalities, like Burnett, Siragusa and
free safety Rod Woodson, is almost devoid of leaders. Lewis
thinks some of the younger Ravens are awed by their surroundings.
"You can see it in their eyes when Ray makes a speech," Thomas
says. "It's like they're thinking, That's really Ray Lewis
talking to us."
Says Lewis, "These guys wouldn't be here if they couldn't play.
They need to relax, but also understand our standards. They'll
learn fast. If you tell young players how to do something,
they'll play at full speed."
Lewis is confident that he can help prevent Baltimore's predicted
demise. He is driven by the belief that as long as he's on the
field, the Ravens have a chance. "Making plays, chasing people
down sideline to sideline, leading the team in tackles, all that
stuff is easy," Lewis says. "The only thing I care about now is
taking this team to a high level." That will be no small
Ray Lewis isn't the only veteran linebacker on the spot. Here are
three others--all with new teams this season--who face great
EARL HOLMES, 29, BROWNS
After six years in Pittsburgh, he's switching from inside
linebacker in a 3-4 to the middle man in a 4-3. His critics say
he doesn't have sideline-to-sideline range, that his knees are
creaky (he was held out of early preseason games) and that he's
coming off a down year. But Holmes, lured to Cleveland by a
five-year, $17.5 million deal, brings toughness and a
sledgehammer style to a team that has playoff expectations.
"Earl is strong, quick to the ball and sheds blocks well," says
Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal. "He won't have the speed around
him that he had in Pittsburgh, but he's still a playmaker."
He'll need to be that and more with Pro Bowl outside linebacker
Jamir Miller sidelined for the year after tearing his right
Achilles in the preseason.
BILL ROMANOWSKI, 36, RAIDERS
He was dumped in the off-season by the Broncos, who preferred to
go with the younger Ian Gold, but Oakland thinks Romanowski has a
couple of productive years left. He'll be an every-down player
and, because of his versatility, should be the best outside
linebacker the Raiders have had in years. Not lost on an aging
team that is built to win now is the fact that Romo has four
Super Bowl rings (two with San Francisco, two with Denver).
Considering his renegade reputation, he should fit right in with
the Raiders. And wouldn't you love to be in the locker room
before those two games against the Broncos?
JAMIE DUNCAN, 27, RAMS
After four seasons with Tampa Bay, Duncan replaces London
Fletcher, who left for the Bills in free agency. St. Louis likes
Duncan's speed and quickness. He's solid against the run and
better in pass coverage than Fletcher, and he has an excellent
grasp of the defense. (Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith was
the Bucs' linebackers coach during Duncan's first three seasons
there.) Tampa Bay, however, didn't feel Duncan made enough plays,
and now--on a team that will be satisfied with nothing less than a
win in the Super Bowl--he mans the middle for a defense that
improved by leaps and bounds in its first year under Smith. St.
Louis vaulted from 23rd in the league in 2000 to third last
season. "He's replacing a popular guy, so he has his work cut out
for him," Smith says.
"HE'LL BE MORE OF A PLUGGER-TYPE LINEBACKER," SAYS ONE NFC
EXECUTIVE, "AND THAT REALLY ISN'T HIS GAME."