10-13-03, 8:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
John Thornton calls him the best down-hill running back in the NFL right now. Kevin Hardy watched one of his runs against Cleveland on tape Monday morning and saw more moves than U-Haul. Marvin Lewis says winning or losing Sunday's game depends on stopping him.
Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis comes into Paul Brown Stadium not only on pace to break Eric Dickerson's 19-year-old single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards by 269, but he's showing how the surprise teams are rushing to shock the rest of the NFL.
The Ravens were supposed to struggle with rookie quarterback Kyle Boller, but they are 3-2 because of their No. 1 rush ranking. The Panthers are undefeated certainly not because of a next-to-last passing offense, but because of Stephen Davis and the second-ranked rush offense. Bill Parcells is the early-line for Coach of the Year because the Cowboys' sixth-ranked running game mixes so nicely with the league's second best defense, and the Chiefs are undefeated because (High) Priest Holmes has Kansas City running seventh and saving its No. 26 defense.
Meanwhile, the Bengals (28), the Jaguars (18), and the Lions (26) are struggling for new coaches mainly for lack of a running game.
"He's a big man. He's an agile man," said Marvin Lewis, the Bengals head coach who was the Ravens defensive coordinator when they took Jamal Lewis with the fifth pick in the 2000 draft. "He can catch the football. He's feeling it. They're having fun. They're feeding off of it."
But Cincinnati knows it can make an awful lot right if they can starve Jamal Lewis and go to 2-4 while making AFC North leader Baltimore fall to 3-3. The Raven game plan has been as subtle as an Edgar Allen Poe epic, so there are no secrets out there in the night.
Boller's 18 passes and nine completions went down Sunday in Baltimore's 26-18 win over Arizona as the second and third worst days in club history, respectively. His 75 yards passing was next to fewest.
"I look at this game as a big game for our defense; for us to come out with high energy and motivation because they run the ball so well," Hardy said. "We know what's at hand. Boller threw the ball 18 times. That's attempts, not completions. So we know what they're going to do.
"We can't say any more, 'Hey, these 0-4 teams went to the playoffs last year,'" Hardy said. "Not now. You never hear them say, 'This 1-5 team went to the playoffs.'"
The 5-11, 230-pound Lewis has the Ravens on the road to the playoffs with four straight 100-yard games, a streak that began when he broke Corey Dillon's NFL record for yards in a game with 295 against Cleveland on Sept. 14.
Dillon (groin) is questionable for a matchup pitting the last two players who held the record, but he did practice Monday. Lewis, leading the league with 742 yards in five games, is averaging 6.5 yards per carry in a variety of ways.
On Sunday, he returned after suffering a bruised shoulder in the third quarter and finished with131 yards on 21 carries even though Ravens head coach Brian Billick said the Cardinals had eight or nine men in the box on 50 of 58 snaps.
"If you look at the second play of the Cleveland game," said Hardy, which the defense did Monday, "that run was amazing. He breaks a tackle, he outruns another guy, stiff-arms a guy, makes another guy miss. He did it all on one play.
"He's a big guy. The thing about it is, he's breaking tackles," Hardy said. "It's not like he's running through holes every time. When a guy is breaking tackles, you know he's running with some power and has some pop."
Hardy, the Bengals middle linebacker, has seen improvements in a run defense that gave up an average of 152 yards on the ground in the first three games by leaving their gaps. They responded by holding Cleveland and Buffalo to 69 and 80, respectively, in the last two games, and they will have to be even more disciplined and pull off more sure tacklers than they did against William Green and Travis Henry.
"Cleveland had guys in position," said Thornton, the former Titans defensive tackle who played Lewis twice a year for three seasons. "But they missed a lot of tackles. A lot of it is staying in our gaps and making the tackle. That's what we've been doing and we really have to do it against them. Their offensive line likes to shove you one way and then he'll cut back the other way."
It may help that Thornton's line saw a similar scheme from the Denver unit that produced Clinton Portis' 120 yards on 24 carries in Denver's 30-10 Opening Day victory.
"Most teams are doing that. They kind of start one way, then let the defense overflow, then he turns it back through a hole," Thornton said. "Kind of like what Denver does. They try to find a hole in the defense. Who is ever on the ground, that's where you can attack them."
But Hardy sees a different offensive line than the athletic one the Broncos used to gouge the Bengals. So it's extremely imperative Thornton's front keep the Ravens' massive people off Hardy's linebackers.
"This offensive line is more power, more strength. They just grind you," Hardy said. "It's important for our guys to get push. It's more important they make guys stay on them. When they get those combination blocks , they have to make guys stay on them so we can get to the ball. It's going to come down to us getting to the ball."
Both Thornton and Hardy, when he was with the Jaguars, saw Lewis as a rookie and before he tore up his knee at the start of his second training camp. They see a better, more mature runner.
"He was big as a rookie, too, but he was wide-eyed," Hardy said. "He's running very confidently." Thornton says, "he's running stronger than before, and he's showing tremendous confidence in his cut backs."
Marvin Lewis isn't surprised. He says he's running better than last season with two full years beyond surgery.
"From the time he touched the ball," Lewis said of his strength, "you knew he was going to be a hell of a player.
"The offensive line is playing better. Knowing that guy is going to make one guy miss occasionally, and they're going to gain 12 to 15 yards when they're not supposed to."
Then it should be Marvin Lewis' kind of game. It comes down to basics straight out of a June high school coaching clinic. The lesson is defensive fundamentals.
"(Being in) Gaps. Tackling. Stay on your feet. Knowing what you're supposed to do. Getting to the line of scrimmage," Lewis said. "It's going to be a big week for that."