Strategy Levels playing field

10-20-03, 2:30 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

It was Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' defensive philosophy in its pure, uncut, and best form.

"Take away their strengths long enough so their weaknesses can't beat you."

And Ravens running back Jamal Lewis wasn't surprised.

For the first two seasons of his career, the NFL's leading rusher had watched Marvin Lewis use all kinds of gadgets to stop the best runners in the game as the Ravens defensive coordinator. Heck during his rookie season in 2000, Jamal had watched the Bengals' Corey Dillon gain nine and 23 yards against Baltimore in a Pro Bowl season he would rack up 1,435 yards.

So he wasn't all that surprised to see the Bengals' defense Sunday in an unconventional set when the Ravens broke the huddle with two tight ends, two running backs, and a wide receiver. Working against an alignment with an extra fourth linebacker along with four linemen, two safeties, and a cornerback, Jamal earned those 101 yards in extending his streak of five 100-yard games both this season and against the Bengals on his 19th and last carry with five minutes left in Cincinnati's 34-26 victory Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

"I still think he's the best back in the league and he got his yards today, but we controlled their surges and he didn't dominate or control the game like he has been," said defensive tackle John Thornton, part of a yeoman effort from the front four. "(The extra backer) was just a package we use when they went to certain personnel. It did the job. We wanted bigger guys because they were going to run the ball a lot."

The fourth linebacker turned out to be first-year player Dwayne Levels, a 250-pound free agent signed out of Oklahoma State who usually subbed for 190-pound cornerback Jeff Burris. It shall forever be the "No Name Package," because a cautious Lewis said, "No," when asked if it had a name.

"I told our players not to describe plays to you, and I'm not going to do it, either," said a smiling Lewis. "We're just out here playing football."

But what was clear was that cornerback Tory James held up well as the only corner on the field at times. Also clear in his first extended action is that Levels had a solo tackle and two assists in playing some good football to help hold Jamal Lewis to three yards or less on 13 of his 19 carries.

"I was unblocked a lot times," said Levels after estimates put him on the field for about 20 snaps. "I was on the weak side and we knew that he was a cut-back runner. They kind of just put me in the box (to play the run)."

Ravens rookie quarterback Kyle Boller swore he saw 10 Bengals in the box and he probably did as Cincinnati became the latest team to dare Boller to beat them. He nearly did with a career day of 302 yards passing and eight completions of at least 20 yards after having all of five in the previous five games.

But it wasn't enough for Boller to overcome his two fumbles and an interception during a 15-minute span in the first half. The recoveries by right outside linebacker Brian Simmons and defensive end Carl Powell and an interception by cornerback Tory James led to 17 points and a 24-7 lead.

"Marvin (was) a good defensive coordinator — a great defensive coordinator, actually — against the run," Jamal Lewis said. "He's really good against the run and does (a few) things different. My concern coming into the game was running the football. I knew we had to complete the pass over the top, which we did. But us being down so early, it kind of affected us. We had a little time to catch up, but we didn't take advantage of the opportunities that we had."

The big lead as much as anything helped the Bengals prevent Lewis from taking over the game. As Simmons said, "It's not how many yards he gets, but when he gets them."

For instance, when Lewis cut back, raced past Simmons, and then carried free safety Mark Roman for 10 of his 35 yards on his longest carry of the day, there was just 2:10 left in the first half and it put the ball only on the Ravens 40 on a drive they didn't score.

But when the Bengals had just gone up 21-7 and were looking to keep the momentum early in the second quarter, defensive end Justin Smith stuffed a third-and-two when he fought through a tight end block and dumped Lewis for a three-yard loss.

"They put about 10 guys in the box. They just pretty much substituted another linebacker for a safety, and when they do that, you've got to be able to throw the ball outside," Boller said. "It's plain and simple, (as) it's a quarterback and receiver's dream to get one-on-one coverage out there, and you've got to take advantage of it. I think we'll continue to do that, and we just can't beat ourselves."

Down so much so early, the Ravens couldn't pound it every play, and Boller was bound to make some rookie mistakes along with those 302 yards. The Bengals did concede tight end Todd Heap for 129 yards on seven catches, but he didn't beat them and that's all that counts in the Lewis philosophy.

"We were just trying to get all 11 guys to the ball," Simmons said. "The front four played well, and penetrated making plays in the backfield. That's what it's all about."

Get used to seeing guys like Levels now that Lewis is here. Baltimore has all kinds of players you might not know, but they show up Sundays. Levels won a spot on this team after a solid season in NFL Europe for Barcelona.

"I'm an athletic active linebacker," Levels said. "If he likes that type, I guess I'm his guy. Going over to Europe got me some recognition and I knew they were watching me and when I performed well, I knew they were expecting good things from me."

Still, it took time for Levels to grow on Lewis.

"I gave Dwayne a role now for two weeks, and he's been chomping at the bit to play," Lewis said. "He's worked very hard for us. Dwayne started (in) NFL Europe. It took him through probably the third preseason game (for me) to become comfortable (with) him — of what was going on — and I (felt like I) could count on him in crunch time. This is outstanding for him."

Not to mention a defense that gave the Ravens a taste of what they've been spooning the Bengals for years.

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