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Xs and O's / LONNIE WHITE

Nguyen Makes Impact

November 16, 2003|LONNIE WHITE

At first glance, there would seem to be few similarities between Ray Lewis of Baltimore and Dat Nguyen of Dallas, other than that both are NFL linebackers.

Lewis, a prep standout in Florida, was selected by the Ravens in the first round of the 1996 draft after his junior season at Miami.

Nguyen is the son of Vietnamese immigrants. Considered too small to play linebacker, at 5 feet 11, Nguyen nevertheless became a record-setting player at Texas A&M, then was drafted in the third round by the Cowboys in 1999.

Lewis' NFL credentials are exceptional. He's a five-time Pro Bowl selection and a Super Bowl most valuable player whose reputation as football's dominant defensive player is rarely challenged.

Nguyen had started 29 games for the Cowboys before this season but had not done much to set himself apart.

NFL experts predicted that he would no longer be a starter because new Coach Bill Parcells wanted his linebackers big and physical, like Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson and Willie McGinest.

Nguyen, however, has not only proved to be good enough for Parcells, but his strong play has put him on a level with Lewis.

Dallas has had the NFL's top-ranked defense most of the season. The Cowboys are the league's best against the pass and fourth-best against the run. Like Lewis, Nguyen doesn't leave the field on most passing downs and his versatility is a major strength in Dallas' hard-hitting defense.

Nguyen has bulked up to 243 pounds and is not that much smaller than Lewis, who is listed by the Ravens at 6-1, 245. Nguyen leads the Cowboys in tackles with 68, 52 of them solo, and in Dallas' 4-3 alignment, his sideline-to-sideline speed makes him the ideal player to keep the Cowboys' pressure attack working.

He has no interceptions this season, but Nguyen has proved he's no liability whenever Dallas faces multiple-receiver spread formations. Keeping Nguyen on the field has helped the Cowboys limit opponents to 3.5 yards a rush and opposing quarterbacks to a 49.1% completion rate. The NFL average is 59.1%.

Nguyen can thank Lewis for getting a chance to show his skills against the pass. It wasn't so long ago that physical linebackers would play only on first down, then be replaced by pass-covering specialists.

Then Lewis came along, and his combination of power and speed helped change the game. His ability to read a play and make a big hit or interception was the charge behind the Ravens' Super Bowl appearance four seasons ago.

Nguyen led the Cowboys in tackles in 2001 but broke his right wrist in the season opener in 2002 and played only eight games. Dallas had reason to question his durability because he also had sat out six games because of injury in 2000.

Lewis also heard people question his future because of an injury. He played in only five games last season because of a shoulder injury, which required surgery. It was the type of injury that normally reduces the effectiveness of physical players like Lewis.

Lewis has proved his critics wrong. He leads Baltimore in tackles with 123, including 85 solo, and ranks second with three interceptions. Obviously, Lewis has returned to All-Pro form and is the key reason for the Ravens' having the NFL's second-best defense.

Lewis and Nguyen lead two of the league's foremost defenses and their ability to play the run and pass makes them every-down players.

The biggest difference is in salary. Lewis will make close to $4.48 million this season. Nguyen's base salary is $1.625 million.

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