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Best of the Best The Ravens' fiery Ray Lewis is making big news, this time on the field, as a defensive force nonpareil

Bursting into view like a laser, Ray Lewis injects into his
surroundings a jolt of unfettered energy. As Lewis, the Baltimore
Ravens' star middle linebacker, emerges from the locker room
tunnel, his teammates--and nearly 70,000 fans at PSINet
Stadium--react to his grand entrance the way religious zealots
might greet a strutting evangelist. Lewis, the leader of the
NFL's most dominant defense, behaves during pregame introductions
with trancelike fervor. He grabs a husk of end-zone turf and
screams, "It's my house! It's my grass!" before charging forward
and chest-bumping everyone in his path.

When Lewis reaches this state of frenzied possession, as he did
before the Ravens' emphatic 21-3 wild-card playoff victory over
the Denver Broncos on Dec. 31, he enters a world few of his peers
experience. "My mind lets go and my body takes over," says Lewis.
"It's nothing that I could ever anticipate or rehearse. I just go
to that place, and my teammates feed off of me."

The result is the sort of emotional binge that helped stifle the
Broncos' vaunted offense and pushed Baltimore, an 8-8 team in
'99, into the thick of the Super Bowl chase. Thanks largely to
Lewis, the Ravens were, as Baltimore defensive end Rob Burnett
put it shortly after the destruction of Denver, "all Viagra'd

As they prepared to face the defending AFC champion Tennessee
Titans in a divisional playoff clash in Nashville on Sunday, the
Ravens were poised to fly as high as Lewis could take them. He
has become the most menacing defensive presence on a unit that
set a league record for the fewest points allowed--165--in a
16-game season. On Tuesday, Lewis was named the league's
Defensive Player of the Year, receiving 30 of 50 votes from a
nationwide panel of media members. (New Orleans Saints defensive
tackle La'Roi Glover was a distant second with 11 votes.) Having
become the league's most menacing defensive presence, the
25-year-old Lewis now plans to chase legends. Excelling at a
position defined by Hall of Famers Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus,
Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary, he says he wants to be
remembered as "the greatest linebacker ever to play this

Doing so won't be easy, no matter how well he plays. To most
people, Lewis is known less for his football prowess than as the
celebrated defendant in a double-murder case last spring stemming
from a deadly brawl outside an Atlanta club in the hours
following Super Bowl XXXIV. Though charges against him were
dropped in a plea-bargain agreement and his two codefendants were
acquitted, Lewis knows his life will never be the same. "It
doesn't matter to me what others might say or think," he says.
"Really, it's irrelevant. I have too many good people around me,
on this team and in the community, who look at me as a football
player first."

In Baltimore the magnitude of Lewis's presence almost defies
description. "I've never seen a team rally around a guy the way
the Ravens do around Ray," says quarterback Trent Dilfer, who
signed with Baltimore last March after six years with the Tampa
Bay Buccaneers. "We can be flat in pregame warmups, and he'll
change the mood in an instant. When he does something extra
special, there's an incredible electricity that rushes through
the team and through the stadium."

Baltimore's creative defensive schemes are designed around the
6'1", 245-pound Lewis, whose range, nose for the ball and
ferocious tackling style are unsurpassed. Marvin Lewis (no
relation), the Ravens' brainy defensive coordinator, asks his
linemen--hulking tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams and quick
ends Burnett and Michael McCrary--to occupy blockers so that his
star linebacker can make the play. "The way Marvin designs a lot
of his blitzes is that he sort of leaves holes open for tailbacks
and invites them to run through," Siragusa says. "That's because
he trusts Ray to fill the hole and slam it shut. Our schemes
wouldn't work with an average middle linebacker."

The NFL is brimming with superior inside linebackers, and until
recently Lewis was regarded as one of a large pack. In addition
to future Hall of Famer Junior Seau, who is now listed at outside
linebacker by the San Diego Chargers, the stars include Sam
Cowart (Buffalo Bills), Zach Thomas (Miami Dolphins), Levon
Kirkland (Pittsburgh Steelers) and NFL Defensive Rookie of the
Year Brian Urlacher (Chicago Bears), as well as such lesser-known
standouts as Jeremiah Trotter (Philadelphia Eagles), John Holecek
(Bills) and Micheal Barrow (New York Giants). Now, most NFL
insiders agree, Lewis has left even Seau in his wake. "None of
those guys can do what Ray can do--run sideline to sideline, cover
receivers and play in space," Marvin Lewis says. "He's got
everything you want, from a great mental capacity to leadership
skills to incredible intensity and athletic ability." Adds
Broncos quarterback Gus Frerotte, "You look at him and say, Is
this guy really that good? But the more you watch him run all
over the field, the more you realize how awesome he is. The guy's
the best there is."

There are numbers to support this assertion. Lewis had a
team-high 184 tackles during the regular season as well as three
sacks, two interceptions and three fumble recoveries. However, as
with so many great players--a Singletary, a Jerry Rice, a Terrell
Davis--conventional measurables don't do Lewis justice. You can
ignore, for example, that his time in the 40-yard dash is a
relatively unimpressive 4.7 seconds. "He anticipates, diagnoses
and reacts as quickly as any player I've seen," Ravens coach
Brian Billick says. "You could say it's instinctive, but that
belies it, because a lot of it is having studied where to go."

Following the '99 season and the off-field drama that ensued,
Lewis improved his already strong study habits. He directs his
fellow defenders' movements during practice, and it's difficult
to fool him on game day. "The way a lot of our fronts are
designed, coaches will leave two gaps open and assign Ray to
both," says Baltimore cornerback Chris McAlister. "It's like,
'You go right and you go left,' depending on which way the play
flows. They're relying on him to guess right, and he almost
always does."

Lewis's explosiveness makes opposing running backs wince. "When
Ray hits a guy, you can hear the air go out of him," Siragusa
says. "Before the game, it's hysterical--opposing backs will come
over and try to buddy up to him, like that will make him take it
easy on them. Then the game starts, and you'll hear everyone
calling out '52' and looking around frantically to see where he

During the Ravens' 24-23 road victory over the Titans on Nov. 12,
Lewis sniffed out a screen pass to All-Pro running back Eddie
George and slammed the 240-pounder to the ground. "Every time
Eddie touched the ball after that, he just folded like a baby,"
McAlister says of George, who ran 12 times for 28 yards and
fumbled twice. "Check the film. He'd hit the hole and hit the
ground first thing. He didn't want any part of us."

Though friendly with George off the field, Lewis doesn't regard
any opponent with deference. "The thing is, you don't have to
respect anybody, as long as you don't disrespect them," he says.
As for his ability to intimidate, Lewis says, "I think [backs]
look for me, one way or another. They might not see me, but they
know I'm coming. I love making that first lick, which I call a

In the Ravens' first-ever playoff game, Lewis set a resounding
tone, ending Denver's first drive by intercepting a Frerotte pass
that had caromed off wideout Ed McCaffrey's hands. On the
Broncos' next possession, running back Mike Anderson, a
1,500-yard rusher, had barely fielded a pitchout on
third-and-three when Lewis fought through a block and stuffed him
for no gain. "That was a big moment," said Anderson. "They try to
take the fight out of you; they attack, attack, attack. When we
didn't convert, it changed the game."

"I played against Lambert and Singletary," says Baltimore vice
president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight
end, "and Ray has the type of temperament both of those guys
had." Newsome made Lewis, who starred at Miami before entering
the 1996 draft following his junior year, the 26th pick in the
first round, and the Ravens instantly knew they'd snagged a
winner. "He's been the leader since he walked in this building,"
Marvin Lewis says, "and nobody ever questioned it."

Then, last Feb. 11, Ray Lewis was indicted on the double-murder
charges. Newsome and Billick began making contingency plans to
find another middle linebacker through free agency or in the
draft. But Lewis showed up in Baltimore and convinced his
employers, including owner Art Modell, that he was innocent. The
Ravens finally exhaled on June 5 when the murder charges were
dropped. Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of
obstruction of justice and was sentenced to one year's probation.
"I think the whole ordeal brought us together because everybody
was so solidly behind him," Burnett says.

Tight end Shannon Sharpe, who signed with Baltimore in the
off-season after a brilliant decade with the Broncos, befriended
Lewis during the trial and became his workout partner and
confidant. "If he's angry at the system, he takes it out on
opponents," Sharpe says. "A lot of people turned their back on
him, including guys around the league. I tell him all the time,
'You've got an opportunity to be something special, one of the
alltime greats.'"

Lewis knows it, and you can feel his urgency on game day. Watch
him just before introductions, and his passion is unmistakable.
He gathers his fellow defenders in a huddle, bounces like a pogo
stick and intones, "What time is it?"

"Game time!" they yell.

"Are my dogs in the house?" he asks.

"Woof, woof, woof!"

Know this: Everyone in the stadium understands who the big dog


COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER TAKEDOWN ARTIST Lewis rudely dropped McCaffrey for one of his seven tackles against the Broncos.

"The more you watch him, the more you realize how awesome he
is," Frerotte says.