-- Jamal Lewis faced the crush of reporters and television cameras in front of his locker Wednesday afternoon, and the Baltimore Ravens running back answered all of the questions in the same way he always has. He spoke in low, even tones; he offered the occasional smile and rare joke.
So much has changed over the past year for the fifth-year running back -- he ran for 2,066 yards, the second-highest total in NFL history; he was named the league's offensive player of the year; he was indicted on federal drug conspiracy charges -- but his even-keeled nature has not.
The spotlight on Lewis will shine even brighter this weekend when the Ravens, the defending AFC North champions, open their season in Cleveland against the team Lewis has dominated.
"I think I've got a target on my back every week, but I think I really got a big target with the Cleveland Browns," Lewis said. "I think it's just that much more defined."
Lewis ran for 295 yards against the Browns in the second week of the 2003 season, setting an NFL single-game rushing record. In the days leading up to the game, Lewis told Browns linebacker Andra Davis that he would have a career game if he got 30 carries; he got exactly 30 carries. He broke loose for an 82-yard touchdown run -- the longest in Ravens history -- on his first touch of the game, and Baltimore won, 33-13.
"I haven't had any phone conversations this week, but you know the week is not over," Lewis said with a smile. "So I'll be listening."
With a total of 500 rushing yards against Cleveland in 2003, Lewis set an NFL season record for most rushing yards against a single team (O.J. Simpson set the previous record of 469 yards in 1973).
"What people don't realize is that Jamal's been doing that against Cleveland since Day One," fullback Alan Ricard said. "I mean, the eight, nine [players] in the box, we've been seeing that since the first game [against Cleveland]. We saw that the second game. You know they just try to crowd the box. I'm not looking for anything different this year. But I don't know, they might put all 11 in the box this year."
The Browns have held Lewis to fewer than 100 yards rushing only once, in Lewis's very first game against Cleveland (86 yards on 13 carries on Oct. 1, 2000). Lewis has run for 1,043 yards on 142 carries (a 7.3-yard average) in six games against the Browns.
Lewis had a rather light load in the preseason and says he feels fresh. He had only 22 rushes for 66 yards as backups Chester Taylor and Musa Smith took the majority of the carries in four games.
"Coach [Brian Billick] really took care of me this preseason," Lewis said.
So far, his off-field troubles don't seem to be affecting Lewis. He is facing federal drug conspiracy charges, and his trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 1, between the eighth and ninth weeks of the season, in Atlanta.
"That's off the field, and that's going to take care of itself," Lewis said. "Right now, I have a job that I have to do and I will take care of this. This is where it's at. This is my family right here."
He isn't concerned that two of the linemen who helped pave the way for his historic season are battling injuries (center Mike Flynn is out with a broken collarbone and left tackle Jonathan Ogden is recovering from a sprained left medial collateral ligament). Instead, Lewis talks about how he has been able to get comfortable with backups Casey Rabach (center) and Ethan Brooks (left tackle).
"That's what I do; as a running back, I have to feel my linemen and really build a chemistry with all of them," Lewis said. "So if somebody has to come in and fill in, I'll still be able to run the ball effectively."
Lewis has always been on an even keel in Baltimore. The only time he gets really excited, apparently, is on Friday nights when he goes out to dinner with Ricard, tackle Orlando Brown and linebacker Cornell Brown.
"It's a great time to go out and shoot the breeze in a different atmosphere," Cornell Brown said. " . . . [Lewis] likes the lamb chops, a little steak, he likes potatoes, he gets his vegetables in. He mixes it up. But it's definitely meat. A hearty meat."
Even last year, when he set the single-game rushing record, Lewis didn't celebrate. In the locker room, he slowly peeled off his gear and dropped it in a pile. It wasn't until a team official suggested that he might want to keep something as a reminder -- perhaps the Hall of Fame would want his jersey, or his foundation ("Another Love for One") could auction off his shoes -- that Lewis set aside some keepsakes.
"That's been him from the get-go," guard Edwin Mulitalo said. " . . . He doesn't really like or attract the attention that a star running back would. That's just him. . . . I haven't seen it change yet. But he does enjoy the success, he does like it."
Ravens Notes: Ogden is listed as questionable. He did some light running Wednesday, but mainly watched practice. Defensive tackle Kelly Gregg (knee) and linebacker Adalius Thomas (knee) missed portions of practice and are also listed as questionable. The only Raven who is definitely out for the opener is Flynn. . . . Billick said he expects cornerback Deion Sanders, who was signed on Sept. 1, to take all of the nickel snaps against the Browns.