- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Two-time defensive player of the year Ray Lewis is still the emotional flash point, signal-caller and leading tackler for the Baltimore Ravens. Fittingly, Lewis wore No. 1, not his usual No. 52, during practice yesterday.

However, in some ways the Ravens’ perennially fierce defense no longer belongs to Lewis. These days, linebacker Adalius Thomas epitomizes the versatility of the NFL’s top defense as it prepares for Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game against Indianapolis.

Thomas has played all over the field this year. He held Pro Bowl tight ends Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Alge Crumpler to a combined nine catches and 88 yards and got in the face of All-Pro receiver Chad Johnson for a couple of plays. Thomas — and not Lewis — will join fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs at the Pro Bowl. He was second on the Ravens with a career-high 11 sacks and third on the team with 83 tackles.

“AD is the coordinator,” inside linebacker Bart Scott said. “If you’ve got a question, you ask AD. I don’t care what position it is, he [knows] the defense. He’s like a coach on the field. To be able to get your hands on a guy like Chad Johnson, jam him and throw him in the Gatorade [literally], that takes a special athlete.”

There has never been any question about the athletic ability of the 6-foot-2, 270-pound Thomas, a two-time Conference USA defensive player of the year at Southern Mississippi. However despite his measurables (a 4.53 40-yard dash at the scouting combine) and brains (he graduated early with a degree in sports administration), Thomas wasn’t taken until the sixth round of the 2000 draft. That snub still resonates and helped him bond with Scott, who wasn’t even drafted.

“Adalius was a flashy player,” Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “He would make a great play, and then he would disappear for 20 plays. We didn’t know if he could be consistent, and we weren’t sure what position he fit. He wasn’t big enough to be a defensive end, and we didn’t know if he could stand up [as a linebacker].”

Indeed, Thomas swung back and forth between end and linebacker during his first four seasons — even making the Pro Bowl as a special-teamer in 2003, his second year as a starter — before finally finding a home at outside linebacker in 2004.

“It’s hard to be consistent when you’re going in and out of the game and when you’re changing positions,” Thomas said. “I bring variety from rushing the passer and covering, doing the little work here and there. Having played up front and at linebacker, the only thing left was the secondary, and having to drop [into coverage] so much, I had a feel for what those guys did, too. So now the thing that hurt me coming out of college, when I was seen as a tweener and people didn’t know where I belonged, is now my strength.”

Cornerback Samari Rolle said that Thomas actually had a better season in 2005 when he was the first Ravens defender to score three touchdowns (two on fumbles, the other on an interception) in a season. Newsome noted that a player usually has to have back-to-back excellent years before he first gets voted to the Pro Bowl. In any event, Thomas has been noticed at the right time. He’s the only defensive starter due to be a free agent in March.

But that’s two months away. For now, Thomas, who played in just three regular season games as a rookie during the 2000 championship season, is focused on the two victories Baltimore needs to get to Miami for its first Super Bowl since then.

“If you play, you’re getting paid,” Thomas said. “Our goal is Miami.”

And if Baltimore gets there, Thomas will be a major reason why physically, mentally and emotionally. No other team has even three linebackers with at least five sacks. The Ravens have four. And Thomas keeps the other three more fiery types grounded.

“Bart’s all hyped,” Thomas said. “He’s got the hot sauce going. T-Sizzle [Suggs] has his [sack] dance. Ray pumps his first and shows his muscles. I’m the calm one of the group. We have to have that balance.”

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