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JOESAM2002 08-12-2004 03:02 PM

Lewis seeks return....
Lewis seeks return to long gains
N.O. plans to counter opponents, spring former Pro Bowler loose
Thursday, August 12, 2004
By Brian Allee-Walsh
Staff writer
Saints wide receiver Michael Lewis became one of the most feared NFL return specialists in 2002, establishing a league record for combined kick- and punt-return yardage.

Last season, opponents appeared to catch up with Lewis by playing their version of keep-away, kicking and punting the ball away from him.

Now, after an offseason of reflection and tweaking the playbook by Saints special teams coach Al Everest, Lewis said he plans to deliver again.

"Our opponents' game plan last season was to keep the ball out of my hands," Lewis said. "They did whatever they had to do to stop our return game. They kicked the ball away from us. They kicked it high, they squibbed it, they kicked it into the corner or to the sidelines, and they kicked it out of bounds.

"Their game plan was to stop us from having a great return. Their coaches get paid to keep the ball out my hands, and that's what they did last year."

By NFL standards, Lewis, 32, had solid statistics last season. He finished fifth in the NFC in kickoff returns (23.7 yards) and seventh in the NFC in punt returns (9.2 yards).

But those numbers didn't measure up to the 2002 season, when he went to the Pro Bowl after averaging 25.8 yards per kick return and 14.2 yards per punt return and setting an NFL record with 2,432 return yards.

Lewis returned two kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns in 2002.

"We had a bunch of changes in our coverages and protections last year, and that was big because it wasn't as clean as it was the year before," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "Plus we made some personnel changes, and I don't think some of our new guys were as good as some of the guys they replaced.

"But teams just avoided kicking to us. Nobody would kick to him. They'd kick to a side, or angle the ball or squib it. Actually, it was smart by them."

Ankle and groin injuries hampered Lewis last season, but the opposition played a bigger role in stopping him. He returned 25 fewer kicks and 14 fewer punts. He also made 10 fair catches in 2003, compared to six in 2002.

"One of those first practices last year, Michael and Mel (Mitchell) ran head-on into each other and Michael hurt his neck," Everest said. "That set him back a little bit and it kind of made him realize that he's vulnerable just like anybody else.

"But we've adjusted our schemes to compensate for our opponents' speed, so we can get Michael the ball and get him started. We're going to challenge teams in all three areas of the field, inside and outside to both sidelines. That should help."

Haslett bolstered the return game with the signing of free-agent running back/kickoff returner Aaron Stecker from Tampa Bay and the drafting of former LSU wide receiver Devery Henderson.

Haslett plans to use Stecker and Lewis deep on kick returns. Henderson will get some work returning punts during the preseason, along with wide receiver Jerome Pathon.

Cornerback Keyuo Craver, who's sidelined with a sprained ankle, also can return punts and kicks.

"If they want to squib kick, that's fine, because we'll have two kick-return guys back there now," Haslett said. "We took Boo Williams off the front and put Mel Mitchell in. Plus we put two big linemen inside and put two tight ends outside. So if they squib it, we'll have guys out there now who can catch the ball. We'll take the ball at our 40 every time."

Said Lewis: "Having (Stecker) back there will help out because we've got two persons now. But I still think they're going to kick it high and real short and let their guys get downfield. I've just got to go out there and make it happen when I get the opportunity."

CheramieIII 08-12-2004 07:13 PM

Lewis seeks return....
The Beerman will make it as our KR/PR if not wr.

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