- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — If Jamal Lewis is to be immortalized, he will have to bring down the Steel Curtain.

The Baltimore Ravens running back needs 154 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season NFL rushing record. A formidable black-and-gold barrier — the Pittsburgh Steelers’ rowdy 3-4 defense — stands between the J-train and his second contribution this season to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Lewis leads the league in rushing and in September set a single-game record by running for 295 yards against the Cleveland Browns. Against the Steelers, however, Lewis has had no such success: he has not broken the 100-yard mark in five games against Pittsburgh.

With a national audience watching Sunday night’s game, Lewis will attempt to change that and, in the process, topple the record of 2,105 yards Dickerson set in 1984.

For Lewis, the solution to his ineffectiveness against the Steelers is simple: Just give him the ball.

“If you look at how many carries I have against them, I don’t think it adds up,” Lewis said. “I’ve never really gotten the ball a lot against those guys. Hopefully, they’ll feed me this week and let me carry the ball a little bit more.

“If [the record] is going to happen, it’s going to happen. If it’s not, it’s not. I’m not going to press the issue.”

The 24-year-old Lewis has rushed for 1,952 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. He needs just 48 yards to become the fifth player in NFL history to reach the 2,000-yard plateau in a season. If Lewis can rush for 102 yards on Sunday, he’ll pass O.J. Simpson (2,003 yards), Terrell Davis (2,008) and Barry Sanders (2,053) for second-place all-time.

Ravens coach Brian Billick has other considerations. His team can claim its first outright AFC North title with a victory. If Lewis needs to break Dickerson’s record to get that win, then so be it.

“Right now, I can say, if you have to run 50 times on Sunday to win, he’ll run 50 times,” Billick said. “We’re going to need every bit of what number he needs to get the record — whether it’s 2,000 or up — to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

In training camp, Billick boldly predicted that Lewis would rush for more than 1,800 yards because of the way his offense is structured — a rookie quarterback (Kyle Boller), new wide receivers (Marcus Robinson and Frank Sanders), a proven blocking fullback (Alan Ricard) and the heaviest offensive line in pro football.

Billick has played to the unit’s strength, running the punishing 5-foot-11, 245-pound Lewis behind a massive line that averages 329.5 pounds.

“What did I say? I said 1,800 yards,” Billick said. “There were some raised eyebrows when I said that he was capable of an 1,800-plus-yard season, and I said that in training camp. Well, that is just not Jamal, that is confidence in what I thought we could do as an offense and with the offensive line, with Alan Ricard, and the tight end.”

Just threatening Dickerson’s record is truly remarkable for a guy who has had reconstructive surgery on both knees. Lewis blew out his right knee during his sophomore season at Tennessee.

Lewis tore his left ACL in the first week of training camp before the 2001 season. Coming back from one serious knee injury is tough enough, but very few players successfully recover from two devastating knee injuries.

Lewis underwent a rigorous offseason boxing regimen in Atlanta while rehabbing his knee in an effort to increase his endurance and lower his body fat. He changed his diet and eats more fruits and vegetables and less of his favorite fried food, all while strengthing his knee and gaining stamina.

The hard offseason work paid off — most recently in the Ravens’ 35-0 annihilation of the Browns last week, a crucial victory for Baltimore. Lewis ran wild in the second half, gaining 164 yards on just eight carries — totals that included touchdown runs of 72 and 24 yards.

“Your offseason training is what makes everything happen during the whole season for 16 weeks and on into the playoffs,” Lewis said. “So, it’s how you work out in the offseason. I learned that. I got my body in the great condition that it’s in so that I could carry the ball this many times.”

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