Lewis grows into force

After battling with injuries for three years, Damione Lewis is finally meeting expectations.
Thursday, September 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:32 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Damione Lewis’ statistics in St. Louis’ season-opening victory against Arizona last weekend might not be too telling; six tackles and a sack for an eight-yard loss.

Ask Mike Martz, though, about the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Lewis and the Rams coach smiles much like he did the day St. Louis got the former Miami Hurricanes star with the 12th overall pick of the 2001 draft.

The Rams long expected big things from Lewis, who Martz says might be rising to his potential entering his fourth season.

“That’s a favorite topic, to be honest with you,” Martz said, explaining “defensive tackles really don’t make a move until their third year,” when the pressures of transitioning from college to the NFL subsides.

“He’s having fun right now. He’s got a smile on his face,” Martz said. “I think some of that stress is long gone. I think this is the Damione that we expected to have, and I think the last few weeks he’s just been terrific.

“I think he’s on his way.”

Martz called Lewis’ showing against the Cardinals spillover from his previous game, when Lewis had two tackles in a preseason-ending 28-24 loss at Oakland. Martz saw maturity, though.

“I think the Oakland game was as well as I’ve ever seen him play, and he certainly was outstanding in this past game,” Martz said. “It’s a brutal position to have to learn to play and it takes some time, even from college to the National Football League. That’s why the really good defensive tackles in the league are older guys who have been around for a while.”

Great things could be expected for any first-rounder such as Lewis, taken with a draft pick St. Louis got in the deal that sent quarterback Trent Green to Kansas City.

“He’s the reason we made the trade,” Rams general manager Charley Armey said then of Lewis.

As a rookie signed to a four-year deal, Lewis played in nine games and started three before breaking his right foot in a November victory at New England. He had surgery, was placed on injured reserve and was lost for the season. Another surgery followed during the offseason, when doctors inserted a piece of bone from his ankle into the cracked foot.

“Any time you’re drafted that high, the expectations are so high,” Martz said. “They stress, they go at it, they fuss over it. They’re going as hard as they can. They’re just not making the plays that sometimes you hope that they would make.”

Lewis wasn’t cleared to practice until August 2002, a stretch Lewis said felt like eternity.

The next season, he appeared to be rounding into form, earning his first two regular-season sacks in a three-play sequence. That year, Lewis got two starts and played in 16 games, accounting for four sacks and 44 tackles, 19 of them solo.

Last season, he started seven of the 12 games he played, missing time with a high ankle sprain and finishing with a half of a sack and 34 tackles.

With the offseason defection of Grant Wistrom to the Seattle Seahawks, Lewis has been looked upon to step it up this season for a defensive line that last season, even with Wistrom, also a former No. 1 pick, allowed 4.8 yards per carry.

Now as Lewis and the Rams prepare for Sunday’s road game against Atlanta, and the slippery, swift Michael Vick, Lewis’ linemates continue hoping No. 92’s career has turned the corner.

“That might have been the best game in terms of playing the run and the pass, getting after the passer. The intensity, the hustle all game,” defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said of Lewis’ showing against the Cardinals. “But he’s still just scratching the surface, man. The guy has so much potential, but you can see the light bulb starting to come on. His confidence is growing.”

PACE FIRES AGENT: Three-time All-Pro left tackle Orlando Pace fired his agent three days before signing a one-year, $7.02 million contract this month, ending his third holdout in eight seasons with the Rams, the NFL Players Association said Wednesday.

The NFLPA confirmed the five-time Pro Bowl selection filed termination papers against agent Carl Poston on Sept. 2, then signed the Rams tender offer as the team’s franchise player. The NFLPA said Pace has filed no paperwork showing he has hired any other agent.

Pace, who started against Arizona, missed most of training camp last year and all of it this season in retaliation for being designated with the franchise tag, insisting that skipping workouts was his only option.

The first overall pick of the 1997 draft, who was seeking a long-term contract, also was a holdout his rookie season.

Pace was a no-show during the team’s open locker room period on Wednesday, and Poston did not return messages at his office.

The Rams placed the franchise tag on Pace last year after a Poston proposal sought a signing bonus of nearly $24 million and a potential overall payout of nearly $85 million over seven years. Both figures were about twice what the Rams were prepared to pay.

TINOISAMOA WILL PLAY: Rams linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa will start Sunday, a week after dislocating his right shoulder, coach Mike Martz said Wednesday.

The second-year linebacker was hurt early in the second quarter of St. Louis’ 17-10 victory but continued to play after popping the shoulder back into place. Martz initially thought Tinoisamoa could miss a few weeks.

“He’ll play. He’s fine. He’ll start,” Martz said. “I think he’s got interchangeable parts; that’s the only way I can explain it.

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