Thomas out for regular season

Outside linebacker, Ravens special teams ace faces elbow surgery today

Suggs to start at Oakland

Best case for return: second round of playoffs

December 09, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

A day after gaining control of the division, the Ravens dealt with the loss of one of their most unsung performers.

Adalius Thomas, a starting outside linebacker and the leading special teams tackler, will have surgery today for a fractured right elbow and miss the remainder of the regular season. Thomas' arm rolled underneath Ray Lewis when the two pounced on a fumble, one of five turnovers forced in the Ravens' pivotal 31-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Ravens are waiting to see if the prognosis changes before placing Thomas on injured reserve, which could come as early as today. The best-case scenario has the fourth-year veteran returning in four weeks, meaning he could come back for the second round of the playoffs.

Terrell Suggs, the 10th overall pick in the draft, will replace Thomas and make his first NFL start Sunday when the AFC North-leading Ravens (8-5) play at the Oakland Raiders (3-10).

"This is a bit of a hit for us," coach Brian Billick said. "But every team in December takes some type of hit, and part of going on is how you react to it and having the next guy step up."

Despite the blow, Billick was in an upbeat mood in the afterglow of the Ravens staking a claim to their first division title.

If the playoffs started today, the Ravens would draw the fourth of six AFC seeds and play host to the Tennessee Titans in a wild-card game that would rekindle memories of their postseason past. The winner would then travel to the top-seeded New England Patriots.

The key for the Ravens is keeping a one-game cushion on Cincinnati. If they end up tied at the end of the regular season, the Bengals likely would have the edge in one of the critical tiebreakers, either in division record, record among common opponents or strength of victory (winning percentage of teams they have beaten).

Although Billick won't admit it, the Ravens probably won't have to worry about tiebreakers. The Ravens play losing teams in the final three weeks of the regular season and could clinch the AFC North in two weeks, when the Bengals play at St. Louis (winners of an NFL-best 12 straight at home).

"We're at a position right now where we have possession of the control card," Billick said. "We don't have to worry about what anybody else does, but us. That's a nice position to be in, and that's the position we want to be in right now."

The main worry yesterday centered on replacing a starter on the NFL's fourth-ranked defense.

Thomas built a reputation for being a flashy player, knocking down eight passes and recording four sacks this season. On special teams, he was playing at a Pro Bowl level, coming up with 23 tackles, a forced fumble and a blocked punt.

Like Thomas, Suggs has shown a flair for making the big play. Used primarily as a rush end in passing situations, he leads the Ravens with 10 sacks and four forced fumbles.

Suggs, a defensive end at Arizona State, worked as a starting linebacker all during the offseason camp but was removed in training camp when he was slow to adapt to the new position.

"It's time for the young man to step up," Billick said. "He's playing well. Now he's going to have an opportunity to play well more."

The move may have come with an eye on the future.

Thomas will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and there's a possibility some team will lure him away with a big contract. Plus, Suggs signed a five-year, $10.09 million deal to be an every-down player.

Inserting Suggs into the starting lineup came as a mild surprise since Cornell Brown had split time with Thomas at linebacker. But when Brown replaced the injured Thomas on Sunday, the Bengals threw at Brown twice for 22 yards.

More of a run stopper, Brown will continue to rotate in at linebacker.

"We've been working towards this," Billick said. "Obviously, that's the position Terrell was brought in here to play. Cornell was playing very well and gives us a certain set of abilities within the confines of the defense. Terrell's abilities certainly match more of AD's."

Suggs' initiation to the starting lineup comes against the Raiders, who are 3-10 and have lost eight of their past nine games.

But the Ravens haven't been a lock on the road, losing their last three trips (at Cincinnati, St. Louis and Miami). In their first visit to Oakland since winning the AFC championship game there in 2001, the Ravens understand they have to battle the atmosphere as much as the players.

"We're going into the Black Hole," said Billick, referring to the infamous rowdy Raiders fans. "We know what that's about."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (8-5) vs. Oakland Raiders (3-10)

Site: Network Associates Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.

When: Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 6

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