St. Petersburg Times: Super Bowl XXXV
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Super Bowl XXXV Tampa, Florida 2001
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  • The Road to Super Bowl XXXV

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    Exactly who is hitting who here?

    Ravens running back Jamal Lewis takes pride in delivering punishment.

    By ERNEST HOOPER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2001


    photo
    [Times photo: AP photo]
    Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis fits well in a division with great running backs.
    TAMPA -- Forget what's written in your program.

    Jamal Lewis is a starting linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.

    He's listed as a rookie running back, but the Ravens will be running a correction any day. His jersey number is 31, but it might as well be 51.

    "I think I was meant to be a defensive player," Lewis said. "That's the attitude I take into games, that's the attitude I take onto the field. I think that helps."

    Lewis, who rushed for 1,364 yards in the regular season, not only emulates defensive players on the field, he hangs out with them off the field. In college at Tennessee, Lewis roomed with current Broncos linebacker Al Wilson. Since the middle of this season, he has become a running mate of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

    Lewis and Lewis have discovered they have more in common than just surnames. They share a competitive spirit that makes Jamal gravitate toward hard-hitting defenders such as Ray.

    "When I was younger, I used to take a lot of blows, I used to take a lot of hits," said Jamal, who grew up in Atlanta. "But my dad always told me deliver the hit, deliver the blow so you won't take as many. That's the mind-set I kept.

    "I just try to go out there and play with a defensive mentality because that's what I'm running against. If I can get in their heads and do what they do, try to intimidate a person by hitting them, I think I can basically control the tempo of the game."

    Lewis' approach is not uncommon in the NFL. Walter Payton always lowered his head instead of skirting to the sideline. Earl Campbell ran with a fierce determination that often left fallen linebackers in his wake. The difference with Lewis is that he combines a 231-pound frame with frightening 4.31 speed.

    He's a Mack truck with a Porsche engine.

    "That's a lot to deal with, 235 and coming down hill pretty fast," Jamal Lewis concurred. "A lot of guys kind of move out the way, but you have some brave ones."

    The Giants certainly plan on being brave, and while much has been made of Trent Dilfer's return to Tampa, New York knows the key is slowing Lewis and forcing the Ravens to throw more than they prefer to.

    It appears New York has a chance. Although Lewis had 4.41 yards a carry, he's down to 3.1 in the post-season. Plus, the Giants were the league's second-best rush defense this season, allowing only 72.3 yards a game.

    "You can't play around with him or he'll run you over," Giants linebacker Micheal Barrow said. "It's the same thing that Earl Campbell had. Earl put those pads down. He reminds me of an Earl Campbell with speed. That's the kind of ability that guy has. We have to bring it. We have to put some things on him to slow him."

    As he headed for the NFL last year, doubts slowed Jamal Lewis more than any defense could. Although he rushed for 1,364 yards as a freshman in 1997, Lewis' sophomore season was cut short by a debilitating right knee injury. He bounced back in '99 to rush for 816 yards, but the sense that he was injury-prone persisted.

    Lewis believes if the Ravens had not taken him with the No. 5 pick, he may have fallen to the second or third round.

    "A lot of guys didn't trust in me," Lewis said. "A lot of teams weren't willing to take a chance on me, but I talked to Ozzie Newsome and a lot of guys on the coaching staff and it seemed like they really liked me. This is kind of where I wanted to be.

    "They took a chance on me and I tried to come in and prove to them that they made a good pick."

    Newsome, Ravens vice president of player personnel, said his staff fell in love with Lewis when he was a freshman and they were scouting Peyton Manning. Still, they were concerned as any team about Lewis' health. As the 2000 draft approached, doctors cleared the physical questions. Lewis cleared the mental questions.

    "I asked him (about the other AFC Central backs)," Newsome said. "Jerome Bettis, Eddie George, Corey Dillon and Fred Taylor -- "At the end of next year are people going to be talking about you like they talk about those guys?' He said, "Mr. Newsome, yes, sir.' "

    Lewis' quiet confidence and surprising maturity are assets that served him well this season. He overcame an early elbow injury and dealt with the competition with incumbent starter Priest Holmes so well that he and Holmes spent a lot of Thursday nights reviewing film together at Lewis' home.

    Raised by a father who was a railroad worker and a mother who was a warden with the Georgia Department of Corrections, Lewis has a discipline you would expect, and a humility that stops him from being boastful.

    "I don't think I've made that statement yet," Lewis said. "I'm not a Shannon Sharpe, or a Ray Lewis or a Rod Woodson. Those are some great guys. They've made a major impact on this game. I just think I add a little bit more ingredients to the team so we can put everything together."

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