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OWINGS MILLS — Ray Lewisâ€™ cleats dig into the dirt as he peers into the backfield, and his eyes are so focused he doesnâ€™t appear to ever blink. At the snap of the football, the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ seven-time All-Pro middle linebacker brushes past a blocker and emphatically slams another running back to the ground behind the line of scrimmage.
Itâ€™s a familiar scenario reinforced by Lewisâ€™ firm belief and resolve that his defense wonâ€™t allow an offense to grind out yards on the ground.
As the Ravens (9-3) travel to Arrowhead Stadium today to take on the Kansas City Chiefs (7-5) in a pivotal road game, the NFLâ€™s top-ranked defenseâ€™s run-stopping principle is about to be severely tested.
The Ravensâ€™ second-ranked rushing defense hasnâ€™t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season when Lewis has been in the lineup, allowing Tennessee Titans runner Travis Henry to hit the century mark when he was out with a back injury.
Now, the Ravens are about to crack helmets with powerful Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, the NFLâ€™s second-leading rusher who often draws comparisons to a young Earl Campbell.
â€œI think itâ€™s going to be a good challenge, but I think theyâ€™re going to have to stop us,â€ Lewis said. â€œWe donâ€™t really look to stop people. We tell people to stop us.â€
More often than not, itâ€™s the Ravens who have earned the final word in this argument. Theyâ€™re allowing a mere 75.8 rushing yards per contest, and have held the Cincinnati Bengalsâ€™ Rudi Johnson, the Pittsburgh Steelersâ€™ Willie Parker and the Atlanta Falconsâ€™ Warrick Dunn to 52 yards or less apiece.
Johnson, though, is a unique puzzle to solve. At 6-foot-1 and a steely 230 pounds, he has power, strength, speed and a nasty, determined attitude. With 1,312 yards and 13 touchdown runs, Johnson ranks only behind San Diego Chargers All-Pro runner LaDainian Tomlinsonâ€™s 1,324 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Plus, Johnson has the advantage of running behind an accomplished line spearheaded by 11-time All-Pro guard Will Shields.
â€œHeâ€™s a big back and heâ€™s fast, but he has the patience of a little guy,â€ linebacker Bart Scott said. â€œHe trusts his line and he allows the holes to open. When he sees it, thatâ€™s when he hits them.
"He’s very patient; that’s rare. Usually, big guys want to go downhill fast and hit the hole as fast as possible. Rarely do you see a big guy with patience."
Johnson has surpassed 100 yards in six of his past seven starts in which heâ€™s averaged 136.4 yards. Heâ€™s the only runner in the league to rush for 150 yards or more four times this season.
The Ravensâ€™ opponents have only gained a cumulative 909 rushing yards and five touchdown runs, averaging a mere 3.1 yards per carry.
â€œThis will test it as severely as it has been tested,â€ Ravens coach Brian Billick said. â€œWith that line and that running back, it will be a severe test for us.â€
Johnson hasn’t been dominating slouches, either. He surpassed 100 yards twice against the Denver Broncos and once against San Diegoâ€™s stingy defense.
Will that trend continue against the Ravens’ defense?
"They play with great passion,â€ Chiefs coach Herm Edwards said of the Ravens’ defense. â€œThat whole football team was built on defense, that’s how they built their foundation. It’s tough sledding running the ball against these guys. He’s going to have to earn every yard he gets."
Baltimore even limited Tomlinson to 98 yards on 27 carries. They’re usually the intimidators, not the other way around.
â€œOur defense doesnâ€™t hide from anybody,â€ Lewis said. â€œWeâ€™re going to come play hard, smash-mouth football and see if you can deal with it.’
Since the 2000 season, no team has surrendered as few rushing yards as the Ravensâ€™ 9,860. The tradition of stopping the run has been passed on to the next generation of Ravens as the defense morphs from a dominant unit in 2000 to a more athletic rendition this season built around linebackers Lewis, Scott, and Adalius Thomasâ€™ mobility and intensity.
The Ravens are practically insulted when someone tries to run on them.
â€œWeâ€™re men, we have pride and ego,â€ defensive end Terrell Suggs said. â€œItâ€™s personal. If you get your [butt] kicked, the next guy will be up in there. Thatâ€™s the idea within this defense. Donâ€™t let your brother down, and donâ€™t let anybody run on you.â€
In a 27-24 Monday night loss to the Chiefs in 2004, it was the Ravens who crumbled.
With Lewis complaining inaccurately that he was being triple-teamed — he was actually being blocked alternately by fullback Tony Richardson, center Casey Wiegmann, Shields and offensive guard Brian Waters — former Baltimore running back Priest Holmes racked up 125 yards on 33 carries.
Kansas City generated 398 yards of total offense on 78 plays, and controlled the football for 39 minutes and 43 seconds. Afterward, Lewis was bleeding from the crown of his nose.
â€œLarry Johnson is a great young running back,â€ Lewis said. â€œThey have a great offensive line, probably one of the best in football. You have to take your hat off to them. They have arguably the best tight end [Tony Gonzalez] in football over there, too.
â€œSo, they have a lot of people over there, but we have a lot of people as well. So, here we go again. Itâ€™s one of those classic battles, and itâ€™s going to be a good test for both sides.â€
The Ravens have a multi-team scenario where they can clinch a playoff berth today that would require them to win along with losses from the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Denver Broncos, which would allow them to clinch as a result of a strength-of-victory tiebreaker over the Jets.
For the Ravens to even reach that position, though, theyâ€™ll need to be mentally and physically ready to withstand four quarter of attrition from Johnson.
â€œThey have a great running game over there, we have a great run defense here,â€ Lewis said.
â€œSomething has to give this Sunday, and weâ€™ll find out once we get there. Itâ€™s one of those classic battles."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland