Some Ray Lewis better than none

Some Ray Lewis better than none
November 28, 2012, 2:00 am
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No Ray Lewis hasn't been much of a problem.

The Ravens are 4-1 this season without the linebacker, who went out Oct. 14 with a torn triceps.

Last season, with Lewis gone with a turf toe injury, the Ravens went unbeaten. That’s 8-1 total.

Lewis’ return is on the horizon next month, but given how well the defense has been playing exactly how does he fit back in the mix?

Jameel McClain has filled his shoes in the middle, quarterbacking the defensive calls. Dannell Ellerbe, who left Sunday’s 16-13 overtime win at the San Diego Chargers in the second quarter with a foot and ankle injury, starts at weakside linebacker but has played that spot, too.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees also has done a masterful job at shuffling personnel to compensate for injuries along a front that hasn’t had Pernell McPhee, Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody and Ma’ake Kemoeatu for a total of nine games since Lewis’ injury.

"We’re committed to fundamental football," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, making a point to credit Pees. "We’ve put some packages together that have put guys in position to do the things they do best. But to me, that’s peripheral to the fact that we’re attacking the line of scrimmage better, we’re taking on blocks better, we’re tackling much better, our underneath coverage is much more disciplined and the eyes in the back end are getting better and better every week. We’re just playing better football."

At times, Pees has moved Ngata, a tackle, to the outside and put Arthur Jones, a defensive end, inside. Jones had two sacks against the Chargers from that spot. He has shifted where linebacker Terrell Suggs lines up. Linebacker Paul Kruger has flouished, registering sacks in three consecutive games. 

Much was made about Lewis before his injury as the Ravens defense struggled particularly against the run.

It was said Lewis was too slow, had trouble shedding blocks and was too frequently chasing plays in his 17th season.

But given the Ravens’ constant shuffling because of injuries, they can’t have too much depth.

The way Harbaugh spoke Monday, if Lewis’ triceps are properly healed he’ll get his share of snaps. But how many?

Lewis played all 71 defensive snaps in a 9-6 win at the Kansas City Chiefs when they allowed 214 yards rushing. In a 31-29 win vs. the Dallas Cowboys, the game when Lewis was injured in the fourth quarter, he played 76 of the snaps as the Ravens gave up a record 227 yards on the ground.

Harbaugh might want to tread carefully when it comes to altering his defense’s chemistry. Opponents have scored just 19.9 points per game in November.

Maybe Lewis gets his starting job back, but plays a reduced number of snaps to keep the Ravens fresher and more unpredictable as Pees has more options.

"Having him on your team can only make you better," said CSN analyst Brad Jackson, who played for the Ravens from 1999-2001, and acknowledging that McClain, Ellerbe and the like have benefitted and earned time, too. "The guys that are second-tier guys are now getting reps in games and they’re becoming better football players. That is going to help you down the road."

Couple that with Lewis' intangibles and come playoff time the Ravens' defense could be playing less like its No. 24 ranking today and more like its No. 2 ranking from a year ago when they advanced to the AFC title game.