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JOESAM2002 09-27-2003 08:10 AM

Point of no return--Michael Lewis.....

Point of no return

After taking the NFL by storm last season with a record 2,432 yards on punt- and kickoff-returns, the Saints' Michael Lewis has seen far fewer opportunities this season as teams have continuously kicked away from him.

Friday September 26, 2003

By Brian Allee-Walsh
Staff writer

A year ago, Saints wide receiver Michael Lewis ran his way into the NFL record book, accumulating the most punt- and kickoff-return yardage in league history.

Now he can't get to midfield. What's wrong with the beer man?
"Teams are scared of us," Lewis said. "Most teams know that we're a dangerous special teams unit, so they're not going to kick the ball to us like they did last year. They're going to try to do different things -- they'll squib-kick it and kick it high because they don't want us to get started.

"So, we got to be patient and put our offense in the best field position possible. Sooner or later, somebody's going to slip up, and we're going to return one for a touchdown."

Seattle, Houston and Tennessee didn't slip up. They placed an emphasis on pinning Lewis against a sideline with high and short punts and kicks. They wanted Lewis to catch the ball at the 15- or 20-yard line rather than giving him more running room by kicking to the goal line.

Through three games, he ranks 14th in the NFC in punt returns with a 5.8-yard average (long of nine) and seventh in kickoff returns with a 23.6-yard average (long of 37).

But the Saints rank third in a key stat. Their offense's average starting point is the 33, behind only Kansas City and Carolina.

"The end results are your net averages and your starting points, and we're good with that," Saints special teams coach Al Everest said. "The individual stats will eventually come. Right now, they aren't what the average fan might look at. But the good fan knows that, if you're only making two yards on a return and you're starting around the 35- or 40-yard line, that's the key."

"I just have to keep doing what I'm supposed to do, follow my blocks and put Aaron (Brooks) and the offense in the best field position possible," Lewis said. "We want to make sure we start at the 35- or 40-yard line and beyond. Then all we need is a couple of first downs and we're in field-goal range."

Lewis said he expected opponents would treat him differently this season after taking the NFL by storm in 2002. He shattered the league record for combined return kick- and punt-return yardage with 2,432 yards, breaking the mark of 2,187 set by Arizona wide receiver MarTay Jenkins in 2000.

Lewis also scored three touchdowns, returning two kicks and one punt for scores. He returned one each for touchdowns against the Washington Redskins in the sixth game.

"Mike is going to get another 60 to 70 kickoff-return opportunities, and he's going to get another 60 to 70 punt-return opportunities this season," Everest said. "Like Kenny Rogers said, 'You count it up when the dealing is done.' And there's a lot more dealing that's going to go on in the next 13 games. Hopefully, we get some things straightened out, and I believe we will. I think our players believe we will."

Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher gave an inkling of things to come at the Pro Bowl in February. Instead of kicking to Lewis to open the second half, Fisher had Adam Vinatieri squib-kick the ball to Lewis.

"That gives you an idea where Jeff is coming from," Everest said. "But it's not just Jeff. That's pretty much week in and week out. Until people say, 'Hey, he hasn't had anything big happen so we'll go ahead and just start shooting it down there,' we'll just bide our time and do a good job and stay after people. Eventually, it will sort itself out.

"Each of our players takes great pride playing on the Saints' special teams unit, and they all know their roles are critical to our success. I would hope the good fans understand what's really important to winning and losing football games is field position."

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