Brains and Brawn

Brains and Brawn

You've seen the grainy NFL films. Legendary middle linebackers on muddy fields creating havoc while bearing names as tough as tanks. Butkus, Nitschke, Lambert. Their toothless grins and savage breaths billowing out of facemasks like simmering coal.

That mythic vision of mayhem belies the middle linebacker position as the antithesis of playing a more cerebral position like quarterback. It's evil against good. The Thing verse Captain America. But the truth, of course, is defensive players - especially linebackers - excel not just because of their abundant brawn, but their brains too.

Just spend a few minutes talking with Giants middle linebacker Kevin Lewis and you get the sense that he's carefully preparing a Sunday presentation to the Chamber of Commerce, not figuring out how to derail the Bears' A-train, Anthony Thomas, whom he faced last week, or Emmitt Smith, this week's assignment.

"The best way to prepare for any back is to watch a lot of tape," says the perpetually smiling Lewis. "Get to know him that way before you meet him on the field on Sunday."

Mr. Smith meet Mr. Lewis. Here's what you're going to face on Sunday. Lewis was leading the front seven in tackles with 37, which means he will be in your grill throughout the day. Especially on those key third- and fourth-down plays. Against Dallas on a fourth-and-one at the Giants 5-yard line in the first quarter, Lewis knocked future Hall-of-Famer Eddie George back two yards in the backfield. Having studied the Cowboys tendencies, he saw George line up in the I-formation and filled the hole faster than Mr. Donut.

If you try to go off tackle, Mr. Smith, chances are you'll run smack into Lewis again. Just ask Clinton Portis. Mr. Portis ran into Lewis a number of times, two of them for losses.

Young Cards quarterback Josh McCown might want to keep an eye out for him as well. In the season opener, Lewis sacked Pro Bowl QB Donovan McNabb for a 5-yard loss. And McNabb has a few steps on you, Mr. McCown.

At 6-1 and a chiseled 235 pounds, Lewis has the size and speed to cover sideline to sideline. Just see Lewis's latest victim, Vikings rookie Mewelde Moore. Two weeks ago, Moore dropped a short screen pass and reacted with a disgusted stomp of his foot. Lewis countered by scooping up the possible fumble and high-stepping it to the 22-yard line. Good enough to help stake the Giants to an early 3-0 lead and a huge momentum swing.

"The coaches told us early in the week that they were going to throw that short screen," Lewis said. "They said, 'If they do and drop it, go pick it up and let the refs declare whether it's a backward or forward pass.' So we did and it happened just like they told us it would."

As a first-year starter with the Giants, after four years as a special teams ace, Lewis is enthusiastically soaking up the NFL limelight - that is, the lights of practice, reels of flickering film and the intense glare of game day.

His unquenchable passion for the game isn't surprising considering his steely resolve to become an NFL starter.

As an undrafted 2000 free agent from Duke, hardly Linebacker U, Lewis made the final 53-man squad only to be waived when the Giants signed kicker Jaret Holmes. Four days later, Lewis was re-signed when cornerback Ralph Brown was put on injured reserve. He played in seven games before being inactive for the playoffs and the Super Bowl. The following year, Lewis was again cut by the Giants, then re-signed a day later to the practice squad. Two months after that, Lewis made the 53-man roster. For good.

Since then he's been a solid special teams performer and spot starter at all three linebacker positions whenever called upon.

This season Lewis took his game to the next level by beating out Nick Greisen in a hard-fought competition this summer. "Kevin and Nick had a great battle," linebackers coach Billy Davis told TGI. "In my mind they went neck and neck."

Like the team atmosphere instilled by coach Tom Coughlin and the rest of his assistants, Greisen and Lewis haven't let their fierce competition get in the way of the bigger picture.

"We're all competitors. It's that desire to compete that makes us better," said Greisen, who's been playing next to Lewis on the weak side since Barrett Green's been out. "It's being out there together and talking. We communicate a lot on the field. It helps you be clear on your responsibilities and it helps others too."

Lewis concurs: "I talk to him a lot when we're out there. I think that's helped us be so successful. Communication makes us more comfortable in what we're doing."

Putting the team above individual competitions has elevated the Giants to 6th in the NFC in total defense, and 2nd in takeaways.

There's no doubt Lewis's play has made an impact on his teammates, not just his shaken opponents.

"Just from camp to now, he's improved immensely," Will Peterson said. "He does everything well. He's a big, fast physical guy. So he can get to spots quickly. He's smart too. He's a Duke guy and he studies a lot of film and prepares well."

Fullback Jim Finn, who goes up against Lewis every day in practice, sees an aggressive, smart player.

"You have to be intelligent to play in this league," Finn said. "K-Lew is a good, steady player. He makes play after play. He's the type where you might be looking to stop someone else and he gets in there and makes the play. Like that 4th-and-one play in Dallas. He's a true professional. Every down you can count on him to be where he needs to be."

Of course, beyond the intellectual part of the game Lewis more than fits the bill of generations of aggressive, tough middle linebackers.

"He can definitely fill the hole," Finn said. "He creates a logjam."

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