KIRKLAND – Part of the weekly chess game that is professional football involves game-plan secrecy.
As hard as the Seattle Seahawks try to protect their defensive secrets this week, the Baltimore Ravens know exactly what to expect.
Eight men in the box, all intent on shutting down the Ravens’ running game.
Every team has stacked the line of scrimmage against Baltimore, knowing full well that the Ravens like to run the ball down people’s throats.
“I haven’t seen Cover 2 since Pluto was a pup,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said Wednesday. “Even if they are not an eight-man front team, that is what we’re going to see.”
While Baltimore’s passing game doesn’t scare anyone, the real reason defensive teams put so many men near the line of scrimmage is to stop one man: Jamal Lewis.
The Ravens’ running back leads the NFL with 1,244 rushing yards this season, 295 of which came during a record-setting performance against the Cleveland Browns in September. By averaging 126 yards over the final six games, Lewis could become just the fifth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.
“If you’re not ready for it, he’ll run for 295,” Seahawks defensive tackle Cedric Woodard said. “He can do it, but we just have to find a way to contain him.”
Lewis has always been a key to the Ravens’ offense, running for more than 1,300 yards in each of his first two injury-free seasons. He spent the 2001 season on injured reserve following knee surgery, but made a successful return last year to the tune of 1,327 rushing yards.
Yet the Ravens asked him to become an even bigger part of the offense in 2003. The biggest reason is the questionable quarterback position, which has been manned by a rookie (Kyle Boller), a career backup (Anthony Wright) and oft-benched Chris Redman. The Ravens rank dead last in the NFL in passing yards per game, and the team’s quarterback rating is a miniscule 56.4.
“I think we have needed (the running game) more,” said Lewis, whose 240 carries rank second in the NFL behind Miami’s Ricky Williams (246). “Not only for the turnover at quarterback, just for Kyle being young and being a rookie learning the system. I knew that I was going to have to run the ball well to take the pressure off him.”
The amazing part isn’t so much that Lewis is having his best NFL season, but that he has continued to thrive even though opponents know what’s coming. Without being secretive about their desire to run the ball, the Ravens have still opened enough holes for Lewis to average more than five yards per carry.
“It’s not tough to figure out what they’re going to try, especially with the quarterback they have,” Seahawks linebacker Anthony Simmons said. ” … They basically line up and run the ball.”
Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said that Baltimore’s attack reminds him of his days as a player at USC. Holmgren contends that the Trojans had only three or four running plays, none of which were designed to trick the defense. They also used the same snap count on every play.
“And we only lost one game in four years because we were strong and we had the great running back and those things,” Holmgren said. “When you have the type of offensive team that Baltimore has, and you have that great running back and those big strong guys and you commit to something, then you say: ‘I don’t care what you do over there. We’re going to make it work.’
“And they do. They make it work.”
Part of what makes it work is Baltimore’s offensive line, which features four starters larger than 340 pounds. Tackles Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Brown combine to tip the scales at 700 pounds. By comparison, the Seahawks’ heaviest starting lineman is 315-pound Walter Jones.
As if that weren’t enough, the Ravens feature formations that typically include a fullback, two tight ends and only one wide receiver.
“They’re committed to formationing so that they can be successful in the running game,” said Seahawks quarterback Trent Dilfer, who joined Lewis in Baltimore when the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV. “And that’s an aspect of football that I don’t think people see.”
Lewis has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in seven of the Ravens’ 10 games this season, so it will be quite a challenge for Seattle’s 16th-ranked run defense to slow him down.
As he showed last weekend, when he ran for just 88 yards and had a crucial fumble in overtime, Lewis is human. The Seahawks just have to figure out how to keep him from looking superhuman.
“They’re 5-5, so somebody’s stopped them,” defensive end Antonio Cochran said of the Ravens’ won-loss record. “It doesn’t matter if somebody runs for 400 yards if you lose the game. I’m not saying that’s how I want it to happen, but at the end of the day I’ll take a W anytime.”