Lewis Still Ravens' Heartbeat

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Contrary to the player fans see screaming at the top his lungs as he stalks out of the Ravens' tunnel, Ray Lewis is typically subdued in the week leading up to games.

But last week, with all the hype surrounding the Ravens-Jets season-opening Monday night showdown reaching a fevered pitch, Lewis just couldn't hold his tongue anymore.

"I'm going to be very careful with this," Lewis started with.

Then the Ravens' 15-year middle linebacker dove into an impassioned four-minute monologue that may long be remembered, a speech that drew national attention and elicited even flamboyant Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan to appear at a loss for words.

Lewis' speech was called many things in the media, including a "rant" by the NFL Network. Instead, Head Coach John Harbaugh called it "righteous."

One thing was clear then and even more so after seeing and hearing the response Lewis' speech elicited.

This is still Lewis' team.

Lewis' 35-years of age is a popular topic for those mystified by how he keeps doing what he does. And while pundits say the keys to Baltimore were starting to shift into quarterback Joe Flacco and Ray Rice's hands, Lewis continues to hold court.

"Listen to what he said [about the Jets]," Harbaugh implored the Baltimore media. "What he said was solid; it was humble. And so, our guys rallied around it because that's who Ray is."

Lewis' words echoed throughout the Ravens' training facility. As his teammates said, it was exactly what they were all thinking, Lewis just verbalized it. But that gesture in turn let their emotions on the subject rush to the surface as well.

In Monday night's postgame press conference, Harbaugh, still visibly running high on emotions himself, finished his opening statement with a testament to Lewis, calling him the best linebacker in the NFL without a doubt.

"Ray is the Ravens," Harbaugh said. "Ray's been here since day one. I think we're proud to win this game for Ray."

Lewis still huddles the team – offense and defense – around him before games to deliver his final words. Against the Jets he stressed the importance of family, those inside that circle and not the former Ravens on the other sideline.

After more than a decade of such speeches, teammates say it still strikes a chord.

"He could go out there and only say something like, 'Let's go out there and win,'" linebacker Tavares Gooden said. "To have a guy that plays as passionate as he does, you know you have somebody that's going to set the tone every game. You're prepared to go out there and send his message."

Lewis' leadership has stretched further than his own huddle this offseason. With the Ravens searching to add to their wide receiver corps, Lewis' friendships with Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh helped lure the two wideouts to Baltimore.

Boldin said that out of all the people he's seen in the NFL, Lewis is the one player who all NFL players say they would love to play alongside.

"Honestly, Ray is one of a kind," Boldin said. "He's a guy that you want to line up with, a guy that you watch from afar and you're just amazed at what he brings to the table, his intensity. For me, just being here this short period, just seeing how he prepares, how he goes about the game of football in general, it's just unbelievable."

Houshmandzadeh talked with Lewis when weighing offers from multiple teams earlier this month. He was already leaning towards the Ravens, but Lewis' early morning phone call, in which he told Houshmandzadeh that Baltimore was the place to go if he wanted to win, helped seal the deal.

"He's just passionate about a regular, normal conversation," Houshmandzadeh said at his introductory press conference. "I need to be around players like that because that's how I am. I just express it in a different way than he does."

Lewis made a name for himself as a brash talker early in his career, which when coupled with his Pro Bowl play made him one of the most recognizable figures in the game. But with age, Lewis has become more spiritual and – dare it be said – quiet.

The passion that makes Lewis special is still there and will be always there perhaps even when Lewis hangs up his cleats – a date Lewis insists he never thinks about and every year seems to get further and further away.

But Lewis motivates through his veteran leadership without always having to stand on the pulpit as he did last week.

"It's not just because he's Ray Lewis and because he's strong and athletic and all that kind of thing; it's because of the way he prepares and his passion for the game," Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison said.

"You always hear him once in a while, but I don't think that's the thing. I think everybody looks at him as being a guy that's played as long as he has at the level he's played at, and then they see him come out to practice and do the things that some guys might not want to do, and he does it. And they say, 'Well, if he does it, I better do it.' And I think a lot of Ray is by example."

Boldin concurred, saying the way Lewis works is "real contagious."

It's not solely his gift, either. Lewis has stressed the desire to pass on his view of the game to every one of his teammates. Accordingly, Gooden said the Ravens now have a full locker room of players with desire similar to Lewis', players that were thinking the same feelings about the Jets that Lewis voiced.

While it was just one win, Monday's 10-9 victory had special meaning because Lewis and his defensive mates rallied together for what Harbaugh called "about the best defensive performance the Ravens have ever played."

Lewis said the win, especially considering it came against his former defensive coordinator, had to be on his personal "top shelf." In terms of his displays of leadership, that might go up there as well too.

On Thursday, Lewis was asked whether he purposefully tried to send a message to his teammates.

"Me being the appointed leader, why wouldn't I do it?" Lewis said. "[I had to] really click my team in, to get us to register, to understand how important that game was going to be Monday night."

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