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Patrick Willis will carry on Lewis' No. 52 legacy

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Patrick Willis will carry on Lewis' No. 52 legacy

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Two of the league's most imposing inside linebackers both happen to wear No. 52.

This story is about the other one.

Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers already has done plenty to prove his is the dominant 52 on the left coast and beyond, having been an All-Pro in five of his six NFL seasons. After enduring years of losing, he finally gets to flaunt his talent on the NFL's biggest stage at Sunday's Super Bowl, where he'll meet up with ... you guessed it. ...

No. 52 of the Baltimore Ravens, retiring Ray Lewis.

``I think in a couple years, people are going to come along and say, `Is that 52 Patrick Willis?''' 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith said. ``He's his own guy. He's making his own name.''

Aside from the number, Lewis and Willis are as different as they come. Lewis is emotional, loud and brash. Willis is soft-spoken and happy to stay behind the scenes.

``That's a whole different guy. That's Patrick Willis,'' Smith said. ``No disrespect to Ray Lewis. Ray's a great guy and he's done so much for this league and it's much-appreciated, but that's Patrick Willis.''

On the field, they each deliver pain the same way.

They make quarterbacks quiver. Ask 49ers backup Alex Smith. He doesn't even like seeing Willis on the practice field.

And alongside San Francisco's 52 is No. 53 NaVorro Bowman. Together, they deliver an All-Pro 1-2 linebacking punch.

``That 52 and 53 are going to be around a long time,'' Ravens running back Ray Rice said. ``They're going to be a force to reckon with. Sort of like our guys.''

Nobody has to remind Lewis what Willis brings on game day.

``I think he is one of the up-and-coming young stars who plays the game the right way,'' Lewis said. ``He plays the game with a certain passion, and plays with a certain discipline. Honestly, I really enjoy watching the young man play.''

Willis, the 11th overall draft pick in 2007 out of Mississippi, is the centerpiece of a San Francisco defense that returned everyone from the 2011 team that came so close to making the Super Bowl. The Niners lost 20-17 in overtime of the NFC title game to the eventual champion New York Giants.

Willis and his teammates used that loss as motivation and ultimately got the franchise back to the NFL title game for the first time in 18 years.

Getting back to No. 52, Willis said he was given a choice of numbers when he was drafted - 51, 57, 59 or 52.

``I said to myself: `Why don't I get the number 52? I know a guy right now who wears that number who is one of the best. It will be a great number to play up to.' That's kind of how it came about.''

He's actually pretty friendly with Lewis, a bond that has grown with time together at Pro Bowls and regular text messages.

``That's a young one, a young lion I talk to a lot,'' Lewis said. ``I've been talking to Patrick since his rookie year, and I got into his story a little bit, why he wears 52 and all that. It is actually humbling to know him as a man because when we started talking at Pro Bowls, he would always tell me all of these stories, and we would just have conversations. My job is now, every time I call him, every time I tell him something, I always try to give him good advice, whether it's to stretch more or to do more to have the longevity that you are trying to have in this game.''

Willis calls it an honor to share a field with Lewis.

``I see a man that plays with passion. I see a man that plays with enthusiasm every play,'' he said. ``I see a man who's a leader. I see a man who made a difference by the way he played the middle linebacker position. That's one of those things that someday, when a young kid looks at me, when another teammate looks at me, and they watch the film, I hope to have that kind of feel to the game. I hope to have that kind of eye. He's the Mufasa of this league right now.''

For now, yes.

Willis' teammates already consider this his time. They have for a while.

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Ravens experimenting with getting Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson on field at same time

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Ravens experimenting with getting Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson on field at same time

Since drafting Lamar Jackson, the Ravens have made it clear that Joe Flacco is their starter. That doesn't mean they're not experimenting with having them both on the field at the same time, however. 

During this week's minicamp, the team has been lining Jackson up at multiple positions. 

"Gosh, I sure like him out there helping us," coach John Harbaugh said of Jackson during Tuesday's minicamp, via ESPN.com.

"If you put two quarterbacks on the field at once, what options does it create for our offense? That's what we're trying to figure out."

While at Louisville, Jackson rushed for 4,132 yards and 50 touchdowns in three seasons. That's more rushing yards than No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley. That unique skill set could be the creative options the Ravens are looking for. 

While at the NFL Combine, however, Jackson refused to workout at any other position than QB. 

"I have a lot of fun seeing what they come up with and what they're going to come up with next," Jackson said. "We'll see where it goes. You have to use your good players."

The Ravens are already viewing Jackson as one of those 'good players.' 

"Once he gets out of the pocket, it's like watching a young Michael Vick," LB C.J. Mosley said after minicamp practice. "It's amazing to watch. When you're defending him, you just have to act like you're tagging off -- you don't want to be on the highlight reel."

Harbaugh has alluded to the fact that the rookie will be active on game days, just exactly how they get the most out of him is what's in play.

"There's a lot of considerations that go into that," Harbaugh said of using two QBs at the once. "Everybody has an opinion. I've read a few. You want to find a way to get the most out of all your guys."

While Flacco isn't the fasted QB in the league, he has shown glimpses of running ability in the past. Figuring out how to utilize Flacco when Jackson is under center is where things will get interesting.

Interesting - as long as it works - is what Ravens fans have been searching for over the last several seasons. 

"Joe has to be able to do other things if [Jackson is] throwing the ball," Harbaugh said. "It gets the creative juices flowing for our offensive coaches, and they've worked hard on that."

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Ravens D-coordinator Don Martindale puts personal stamp on unit

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Ravens D-coordinator Don Martindale puts personal stamp on unit

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- There are no dreary work days for Don Martindale, who has overwhelmingly embraced his new role as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens.

After serving for five seasons as the team's linebackers coach, Martindale was promoted to coordinator in January after Dean Pees left the post.

Enthusiastic doesn't even begin to describe Martindale's attitude about being in charge of the defense.

"Ever since we've made this transition, it's been a joy to just come through those gates every day. I love it," Martindale said after Wednesday's mandatory minicamp practice.

This isn't the first time Martindale has been put in charge of molding a defense. In 2010, he watched over a unit in Denver that was the worst in the NFL in both yards and points allowed per game.

Given a second chance, the 55-year-old Martindale is putting together a defense that will rely heavily on the instinct of several of its most proven players, most notably safety Eric Weddle and linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley.

"He's just putting his personal fix on our defense and expanding it, giving the guys confidence to play fast," Weddle said. "The idea is to do what's best for the defense, not what's best the individual."

Martindale called Mosley "the quarterback" of a fluid unit that can make a snap-change from drop-back coverage to an all-out blitz. In that regard, Mosley believes this defense is superior to the one that in 2017 yielded 18.9 points per game, sixth-best in the NFL.

"The way we're able to use our core guys, put them in different spots and do some of the same things just from different positions, it's more creative, I would say, than where we were last year," Mosley said.

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh promoted Martindale rather than go outside the organization because he wanted to extend his vision of a defense that has evolved since his arrival in 2008.

"All we're doing is forwarding John's plan," Martindale said. "We're remodeling the package. It's still Ravens football, it's still Ravens defense, but we've streamlined it. It's the elegant simplicity. Guys are playing really fast."

Asked for his take on Martindale's defense, Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg replied, "They're fast and they're furious."

Sure, things might be different once the pads go on at training camp, but at this point, Martindale's boss likes what he sees.

"We're doing a lot of neat things on defense, things that are really good," Harbaugh said. "More than ever, we're putting it on our players to make decisions in real time."

Martindale has a new title, but old habits die hard.

"For the most part, it's been the same," Mosley said. "He always comes in and says, `I have to lead the linebacker room,' and sits down and gets to talking like he's back at linebacker coach."

Told of Mosley's disclosure, Martindale smiled and said, "I've been trying to stay out of there, but you can't help but go in. That's home. I have a good time in the secondary room as well."

And just about everywhere else.

"Where we're going with this thing is really exciting to me," Martindale said, "and I know it's exciting to the players."

In other training camp news, cornerback Jimmy Smith was a surprise participant at practice, going through a light regimen of individual drills just six months after tearing his left Achilles tendon.

"I don't know if Jimmy's like half Wolverine, but he's healed up in half the time of regular human beings," Weddle said, referring to the amazing recuperative powers of the Marvel super hero.

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