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 mink 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 inspiring teammates.
"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] Junior Seau."
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 fly.
"[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."