Mike Preston: Ravens will find role for Ayanbadejo, but question is where

August 29, 2011|Mike Preston

There was speculation that Ravens inside linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo was on the bubble to make the team for the 2011 season.

If he was, Ayanbadejo has burst it in training camp and the preseason.

"Two years ago, we found a role for him on special teams and defense," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "He is at full speed again and as well-conditioned of an athlete as we have. We'll find a role for him again. We have to."

The doubt about Ayanbadejo started in Game 4 of the 2009 season against the New England Patriots, when he tore a quadriceps, forcing him to miss 12 games. Last year, he seemed to have rebounded, but a knee injury caused him to miss six games.

Then, in April, Ayanbadejo was diagnosed with a staph infection, resulting in emergency surgery and a five-day stay in the hospital.

At age 34, he could have given up, and he had every reason to do so.

Because the Ravens have so much depth at inside linebacker with Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe, Jason Phillips and Tavares Gooden, Ayanbadejo was expendable.

But the NFL lockout and the new collective bargaining agreement resulted in restricted free agents' missing the first couple days of training camp. When they were out, Ayanbadejo capitalized on the opportunity.

"Those restricted guys couldn't practice, and he could," Pagano said. "Because he is on the sub unit, he usually doesn't get a lot of reps. He benefited and performed well. He did a nice job."

So now, Ayanbadejo is the top linebacker replacing McClain in the Ravens' nickel and dime coverages. Because of his speed, Ayanbadejo is the ideal coverage guy. Because of his quickness, the Ravens can have Ayanbadejo rush off the corner or delay-blitz inside.

The problem is that for six years before 2009, Ayanbadejo made his living as a special teams ace. He wasn't just a good one, but a great one, a three-time Pro Bowl performer.

That's where the dilemma comes in.

Because of his relentless style and size, it's impossible to think that Ayanbadejo could play regularly on special teams and in the Ravens' defensive sub packages.

The last time he did, he tore the quadriceps muscle.

"I probably can't do it all," Ayanbadejo said. "As much as I want to play hard every play, I would be doing a disservice to my teammates and myself if I couldn't blaze out all the time. I think we have learned from past mistakes."

Fortunately for the Ravens, the NFL moved the line of scrimmage for kickoffs up to the 35-yard line. We've seen teams returning the ball 9 yards deep in the end zone, but that won't happen in the regular season.

Now, teams are just working on blocking assignments. When the real games begin, they won't risk field position. The new rule will allow a player like Ayanbadejo to play more on regular defense instead of just jogging down the field on touchbacks.

"Now, kickoff and kickoff returns are not as relative as they used to be," Ayanbadejo said. "There is more emphasis on punt and punt returns. But I don't think this rule will last more than a year because you're turning down a high-energy play from a high-energy game and you're dumbing down what certain players and certain coaches do. So we'll see what the coaches have in store for me as far as accommodations on defense and special teams."

It probably won't be that hard. When teams go to three wide receivers, Ayanbadejo will be in on nickel and dime coverages. He has to be part of any package where there is a lot of movement.

The Ravens will pick their shots with Ayanbadejo on special teams. But unlike two seasons ago, he doesn't have to be on the field a lot.

The Ravens will be selective with Ayanbadejo. They have to be. He is too special to leave out.


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