JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The picture hangs directly across from Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio’s desk, a constant reminder of his first NFL coaching job.
It’s a photo of current and former Baltimore Ravens linebackers Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware huddled together before a game. Del Rio, who coached the talented trio for three seasons in Baltimore, has seen it nearly every day for the past nine years.
It stands out a little more this week, with Del Rio knowing Lewis is coming to town for a Monday night game between the Ravens (4-1) and the Jaguars (1-5).
There’s no player in the league Del Rio respects more than Lewis, the fiery and seemingly ageless wonder who has lined up in the middle of Baltimore’s revered defense for 16 seasons.
“The heart and soul of that defense for a long, long time,” Del Rio said. “He continues to play at an amazingly high level and he’s found the fountain of youth. I’ll talk with him on Monday and see if he’ll let me know where it is. He really is playing at a high level and doing a nice job for them.”
Lewis and Del Rio shared three of their most memorable seasons together. When Del Rio arrived in 1999, Lewis was well on his way to becoming the league’s most ferocious defender. Triple-digit tackles, sacks and interceptions were just part of his game. His leadership, attitude and intensity were equally noted.
Del Rio sort of fell into a perfect coaching situation, especially for a rookie assistant.
Asked whether he takes any credit for Lewis’ success, Del Rio said, “no more than Mike Holmgren taking credit for Brett Favre.”
“We coaches get a chance to work with and touch great players,” Del Rio said. “There’s no question that you can have a positive impact, but great players like that are rare. And when you get a chance to coach one, you understand that.”
With Lewis making everyone around him better, the Ravens were among the best defenses in the league during Del Rio’s three-year tenure. Baltimore’s defense set an NFL record for fewest points allowed (165) during a 16-game season. The Ravens recorded four shutouts during the 2000 season and beat the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
It was a crowning achievement for Lewis and Del Rio, one they will never forget.
“I think Jack was always a true man’s man, a true professional,” Lewis said. “It truly comes from his experience in playing in the game itself. That’s kind of the way he approached work. He made work truly something that you wanted to come to every day. He’s one of the coaches that’s really motivating.”
Del Rio had a chance to play alongside Lewis, too.
Former Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, now Cincinnati’s head coach, wanted to sign Del Rio to mentor Lewis in 1997. Instead, Del Rio retired and became an assistant strength coach with the New Orleans Saints. He ended up in Baltimore two years later — and jokes that his main task was to not mess Lewis up.
“He’s great because he has tremendous passion, drive, commitment,” Del Rio said. “He’s a talent with a motor. He does things that other people can’t do, and his will to prepare and his will to compete day in and day out.”
Del Rio remembers former linebackers coach Maxie Baughan telling him he needed to keep a close eye on Lewis because “he’ll work himself to death.”
“You go into every day of camp the way he approaches it, the fire that he brings, the intensity that he brings every single day, every single play, and I think that’s what separates him,” Del Rio said. “He’s got such an insatiable appetite to be great and to pay the price to be great and then to demand it of others around him. I think that makes him special.”
Lewis has 42 tackles, two sacks and an interception this season, and Baltimore’s defense appears to be a mismatch for Jacksonville’s offense.
The Ravens have allowed an NFL-low 14.2 points a game. Even more impressive: Baltimore’s defense has scored nearly as many touchdowns (four) as it has given up (five). The Jaguars are averaging 12 points a game and rank last in the league in passing and total offense.
It’s also a chance for Jacksonville, which has lost five in a row, to turn things around in prime time.
“We can’t see it as a big stage and then try to go out there and do more than what we usually do,” running back Maurice Jones-Drew said. “We still have to go out there and be poised and keep our composure and just go out there and play. They have like four or five guys on their team that can be All-Pros on defense. It’s going to be another challenge for us, but I think we’re up for it and we can’t wait to go up against them.”
Del Rio has one win in three games against his former team. It came in 2005 with Lewis sidelined because of an injury. The 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker will be on the field Monday night, and his play hasn’t dropped much, if any, from those days of that photo hanging in Del Rio’s office.
“We took that picture years ago, and honestly any time you win a championship with somebody, you’re always going to have those memories,” Lewis said. “So that group was special. That group was very special, and Jack was a huge, huge part of that success.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)