It wasn't the first time Dannell Ellerbe has trotted onto the field as a starter for the Ravens.
But when the inside linebacker scanned the field in the first series of Sunday's 31-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, it was almost surreal for Ellerbe when he glanced over to his right and saw Jameel McClain lined up next to him and not Ray Lewis, who was out with a toe injury.
"It was new to me to be out there without Ray Lewis," he said. "Just to be able to go through stuff on my own and be more assertive, not looking to him for help, it was a good lesson."
Another educational experience could be on the agenda for Ellerbe and his fellow linebackers Thanksgiving night. Frank Gore and the San Francisco 49ers will bring a punishing and productive running game to M&T Bank Stadium, and Lewis is again expected to be a game-time decision.
If Lewis is inactive, Ellerbe would make just the sixth start of his career.
Signed by the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2009, Ellerbe started three games alongside Lewis as a rookie. The following season, he lost his starting position to McClain — another one of G.M. Ozzie Newsome's undrafted finds — but Ellerbe has been a valuable reserve and special teams standout. He has made seven tackles this season, including three against the Bengals.
"Dannell goes out there and plays fundamental football," McClain said. "[On Sunday] I saw him doing what he always seems to do — playing downhill football and getting after the ballcarrier."
That will be a priority against the 9-1 49ers, who have imposed their will on opposing defenses with the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing attack. The big, physical offensive line has bulldozed broad running lanes for Gore, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who has rumbled for 870 yards and five touchdowns on 189 carries this season, and Kendall Hunter, Gore's shifty jitterbug backup.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Gore "the straw that stirs the drink" for the 49ers offense. McClain raved about his combination of speed, power, balance and vision. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson feels the five-foot-nine, 217-pound back "is as good as there is in the league."
And San Francisco's line is anchored by three former first-rounders: left tackle Joe Staley (28th overall, 2007), left guard Mike Iupati (17th, 2010) and right tackle Anthony Davis (11th, 2010).
"Their whole offensive line has played very well, but those two guys on the left side, Iupati and Staley, have been special," Harbaugh said.
The Lewis-less Ravens limited Bengals running backs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott to 81 yards on 24 carries, but Benson scored a pair of touchdowns. Now with four days between games against hard-nosed offenses, the defense is preparing to take on a particularly physical challenge in a Thanksgiving showcase game many Ravens are not thankful to be playing in.
Their aching bodies will not be fully recovered. Also, they don't have as much practice time to resolve issues that surfaced in Lewis' absence Sunday, most notably lapses in communication after the calls from defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano were radioed into McClain's helmet.
"They use a lot of different personnel groups so getting lined up is half the battle," Johnson said. "And being that we only have a couple of days to prepare, it makes it that much harder."
Tuesday, the Ravens released a statement from Lewis, who participated in practice but was not in the locker room during media availability (the team said he was receiving treatment). He stated that he is making progress and is "doing everything in my power" to return to the lineup.
If his wonky toe does not heal, school will be in session as Professor Lewis lectures his young pupils on the sidelines. "After every series, he's telling us something," Ellerbe said. It isn't the ideal classroom setting, but it may benefit Ellerbe, McClain and the Ravens for the long haul.
"I'm just happy to know they trust me [to fill in for Lewis]," Ellerbe said. "That feels even better than being put out there when Ray is out there. … I know I have to get everything done myself."